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Officials urge caution as North Carolina's spring wildfire season begins

An aerial view of rural green land is on fire. Large plumes of gray smoke billow over the greenery.
Courtesy of Philip Jackson
N.C. Forest Service
The Last Resort wildfire took place in Tyrrell County in March 2023. It reached 5,280 acres in size.

March is the start of the spring wildfire season in North Carolina.

The state had more than 5,300 wildfires last year, which burned more than 76,000 acres. North Carolina has two wildfire seasons: one during the spring and one during the fall. According to Philip Jackson, a public information officer with the North Carolina Forest Service, springtime is typically the most active season for wildfires.

Nearly 40% of the state's wildfires occurred in the spring last year. In recent years, Jackson added, North Carolina has fluctuated between 41% and 70% of fires occurring in the spring.

The spring season's wildfire activity is partially due to plants and other vegetation waking up and refueling after their winter dormancy.

“Think of a bear when it wakes up from hibernation,” Jackson said. “It's got to eat. And these plants, they’ve got to pull that moisture from the ground, and they need that nutrients to be able to bloom and develop.”

A photo taken on the ground during the Last Resort wildfire in Tyrrell County. Black silhouettes of trees line the bottom half of the image, while the sky is orange with smoke and fire. A bright orange flame takes up the center of the sky.
Courtesy of Philip Jackson
N.C. Forest Service
The Last Resort wildfire in Tyrrell County was caused by a debris burn escaping containment. According to the N.C. Forest Service, debris burns are the main causes of wildfires in the state.

Despite springtime rain, Jackson said that these thirsty plants can dry out the areas around them. The greenery that ushers in spring then signals the start of more days with high fire danger.

“Think of each individual root system being a straw in the ground, and that straw is sucking that water out of the ground,” Jackson said. “Even when you have days where you get a lot of rain, it might not hang around for very long because you have so many different organisms that are pulling that moisture out of the ground. So, the vegetation can dry out a little quicker.”

The warmer weather also draws more people outdoors for recreation and spring cleaning, which creates more ignition opportunities. Jackson said that in North Carolina, 99% of wildfires are caused by humans. Of the more than 300 wildfires that occurred in the last week alone, Jackson said that just one was started by lightning. All others were human-caused.

Debris burning is the main culprit of North Carolina’s wildfires. The practice is often used to dispose of leaves, tree limbs and other yard debris. Last March, a debris burn on private land in Tyrrell County escaped containment, reaching 5,280 acres in size. It took firefighters about two weeks to fully contain the fire.

Jackson says residents need to be mindful of wildfire causes heading into the spring season. Before burning, Jackson encouraged landowners to obtain a burn permit and to keep phones and water sources nearby. Additionally, he said residents should not burn debris on dry, windy days.

The spring wildfire season runs through May.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.