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As Drought Intensifies, Controlled Burns Combat Wildfires and Preserve Southern Forests

Threats of forest fires are on the rise. That’s due to a flash drought -- or a drought that strikes suddenly -- that’s sweeping across North Carolina and 13 other southern states. September’s record high temperatures and lack of rainfall are leading officials to implement fire bans in some areas of the South. But fires aren’t necessarily harmful for the southern forests. 

Last year was the wettest on record in the United States, and flooding was a major concern. Now the South is facing the opposite problem.

According to the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council, nine North Carolina counties are seeing severe drought conditions, twelve are experiencing abnormally dry conditions, and nearly 50 are in a moderate drought.

The conditions are mostly present in the central and western parts of the state. But with the next couple of weeks forecast to be just as dry, eastern North Carolina will soon be seeing impacts, too. That’s according to Klaus Albertin, the council’s chair. He says, if the forecast holds, the entire state may experience drought or dry conditions by mid-October. 

Droughts are nothing new -- but Albertin says this one is a little more unusual, because of how widespread it is, how suddenly conditions worsened, and how much the weather varies from last year’s. 

“...we are seeing a lot more variability, and that is one of the things that they've been saying with climate change, is that we expect to see kind of these more extremes.”

He also says these dry conditions cause a lot of different issues.

“...soybean yields are dropping, corn has had a tough year… you're going to see brown lawns and decreases in water supplies, and the forest is going to dry out.”

As the forest dries out, this increases the threat of wildfires. But fire isn’t anything new in the southern forests -- and generally, it can be beneficial.

Angie Carl is the Coastal Fire and Restoration Manager for the Nature Conservancy in Southeastern North Carolina. She says that just as rainforests have always needed rain, the southern forests of the United States have always needed fire.

“...we had a lot of lightning strike fires and we still do, but we also had a lot of Native American burning for travel, for food, for running game.”

The longleaf pine forest is an example of what Carl calls, “fire forests.” Native to the southeast, it was once one of the most extensive ecosystems in North America -- but due to residential and agricultural development, 95 percent have been lost. 

To restore the longleaf pine forests, Carl and other professionals create fires, intentionally. They call these controlled burns.  

“With these fire forests, we actually need to add fire back in to maintain the longleaf pine ecosystem. You can go around and see the forests that aren't maintained by fire, and they're very choked, they're very densely packed with trees. Our longleaf pine forests are more open, they're more park-like, savanna-like, and fire burns through, and just burns through the undergrowth.”

Controlled burns reduce competition between plants, add nutrients back into the ground, and allow sunlight to hit the floor. As a result, species like orchids, grasses, trees, and carnivorous plants like Venus Flytraps can thrive. 

The burns can also help control, and even stop wildfires. That’s because the burns reduce available fuel, as well as grasses and other plants that can easily catch fire. 

But Carl says that even though wildfires can be more intense than small, controlled ones, there are benefits to them.  

“Fire is not good or bad… most of the time when fire gets put back onto the landscape, it's good for the landscape. The only time that it's really bad is when human interaction with it is bad. So if we lose lives or we lose properties. And so usually for the most part... even in these times of really dry points, there's value to what's actually occurring ecologically.”

Among the advantages of fire, Carl thinks it’s also gorgeous. She says people call her up, and come from all over the world to see the aftermath of a burn.

“Fire has a bad connotation. Fire also mesmerizes people, if you have a fire in your fire pit or in your fireplace, people just get mesmerized by fires. It’s beautiful. So we want to show how we use it as a tool and how it's a natural process that belongs in our southern forest.”

For information on current county-by-county drought conditions in North Carolina, and what each drought category means, click here.

For information on Fire in the Pines, a festival being held by The Nature Conservancy on Oct. 12 that will feature a demonstration of a controlled burn if weather permits, click here.


Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.