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Resource Management

Resource Management

 

Fire management at Carolina Sandhills NWR

A key aspect of the Carolina Sandhills NWR is its role as a demonstration project for the protection and enhancement of the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem that covers much of the refuge. Fire is one of the most important management tools. Prescribed burning is conducted several times each year on different portions of the refuge.

This mimics the natural fires that historically burned through longleaf pine/wiregrass areas on a three to five-year interval. Those natural fires were of low intensity, fueled by grasses and pine litter. The prescribed fires used at Carolina Sandhills NWR suppress the growth of hardwood trees, creating an open park-like situation preferred by the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) and many other animals and plants native to this ecosystem.

The Carolina Sandhills staff uses fire as a catalyst that promotes changes in the ecosystem. They anticipate the changes that will occur after a prescribed burn, and study the processes that take the ecosystem from one stage to the next. Regular prescribed fires reduce the amount of ground fuels, which means that if a wildfire did occur on the refuge, it would be less intense and easier to control. Fuel reduction helps prevent crown fires, which burn at high intensity and are capable of causing unacceptable change. It is crown fires that we generally think of when we envision an out-of-control forest fire.

Fire also returns valuable nutrients to the soils. Certain pathogens that reduce growth in pines and other species can be controlled or eliminated by the use of prescribed burning. A classic example is brown spot needle blight in the longleaf pine. Once the diseased needles on young pine trees have been consumed by fire, the blight is controlled, and the seedlings can continue to store carbohydrates in their roots.

In planning a prescribed burn, fire managers on the refuge write a "prescription" for the fire to be ignited only when certain weather, fuel and moisture conditions occur that will make the fire manageable. The refuge maintains a complete weather station that collects hourly data including temperature, humidity, wind, fuel moisture, and other climatic factors.

The prescribed fire program at the refuge strives to return the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem to a natural condition, providing suitable habitat for native plant and wildlife communities. Fire is mainly applied in the winter and spring. Winter (dormant season) fires are used to reduce fuel loads of pine needles and oak leaves, and also to keep understory hardwoods at bay. Spring (growing season) fires are used to control taller midstory hardwoods and to prepare the ground for longleaf pine seedlings. Curtailing understory and midstory hardwood growth in longleaf pine habitat is crucial to maintaining the open, park-like environment required by the red-cockaded woodpecker. 

Prescribed fires are often set using a helicopter. The aircraft carries a supply of incendiary devices the staff refers to as "ping pong balls." As the balls are dropped from the helicopter small spot fires are started in a tight pattern along a predetermined fire line. This allows for a very predictable and accurate prescribed burn. For smaller prescribed burns, a hand-torch is still used to light the fires.


 

Last Updated: May 13, 2014
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