Wildfire in Wetlands

Flex track 3


The Flex Track is specialized for work in wet conditions and is especially effective for fighting fire in eastern North Carolina.   Pictured above, DOI Secretary David Bernhardt is taking a close-up look at a Flex Track as Fire Control Officer Donnie Harris explains it's versatility in these wetland conditions.


In eastern North Carolina, many of the habitats are characterized as wetlands. These wetland habitats range from saltwater marsh to pocosin to blackwater swamps with a lot of variations along the way. Some wetlands have standing water year round, but many wetland types naturally have periods of dryness, whether it be from tides to seasonal rain patterns. Fire is actually a natural part of many wetland habitats, and many of the wetland species depend on fire as part of their life cycles (examples: pitcher plants and pond pine). Under certain conditions, like an extreme drought or where wetland soils have been artificially drained, wildfires can cause severe damage to habitats by burning the organic soils (peat) that support the plant life.

Historically, many wetlands in eastern North Carolina were ditched and drained for agriculture, peat mining, or access for logging. The National Wildlife Refuge System and other conservation partners have worked hard over the years to restore natural hydrology both for the ecological health of the habitat and to protect the area from devastating wildfires. Dry peat is very like the charcoal you cook over, and in some parts of the world it is mined as a fuel. Once the peat ignites, it can burn for months. The only way to fight ground fire effectively is literally to flood the area. Refuges in eastern North Carolina manage thousands of acres of peatland. In some places the peat is as much as 20 feet deep. Burning peat produces high volumes of smoke.  Smoke from a wildfire in 2008 lasted all summer and impacted cities over 150 miles away.

Because of unique habitats and soil conditions, equipment normally used to manage fires in other upland places cannot operate on these peat soils. Specialized equipment, like flex tracks and marsh masters, which have wide tracks and relatively light weight, give it a very low ground pressure. This allows it to traverse and operate safely in the soft, often soggy conditions. Traditional bulldozers and other heavy equipment would likely sink into into the soil and become stuck in the same conditions. Some of this equipment is actually amphibious, and can cross areas of open water.