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
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
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.
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This small bird's most distinguishing feature is a black cap and nape that encircle large white cheek patches. Rarely visible, except perhaps during the breeding season and when defending its territory, the male has a namesake small red streak — called a cockade — on each side of its black cap.