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Rx fire: The prescribed burns that protect you from wildfire

A group of firefighters sit back and observe a prescribed fire in Carolina Beach State Park, Wednesday, March 1. They lit the fire as part of WTREX, a training for women in prescribed fire.
Kelly Kenoyer
A group of firefighters sit back and observe a prescribed fire in Carolina Beach State Park, Wednesday, March 1. They lit the fire as part of WTREX, a training for women in prescribed fire.

Winter and spring are the best times of year for prescribed burns. Those are the fires that mimic the naturally occurring wildfires that once swept across the landscape before settlers arrived in America, and practitioners say they support the local ecosystem.

There’s something really surreal about watching a fire right next to a suburb and a major road. Emergency vehicles with lights flashing through the smoke, and cars slowing down because of the reduced visibility.

But this fire isn’t some accident. It was set intentionally, in harmony with the wind and weather to ensure it doesn’t get out of control.

“We had a golden opportunity of a day with the wind direction,” said Carrie McCullen, a forest supervisor with the North Carolina Forest Service. “The smoke right now is blooming back over into the main State Park area.”

The burn is part of WTREX, or Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange. They’re burning a few dozen acres of Carolina Beach State Park as part of a two-week-long training for dozens of firefighters to learn the proper strategies to conduct a prescribed fire. Overseen by a burn boss, who is in charge of that particular fire, these burns mimic the natural cadence of wildfire in the landscape. Doing so helps keep the ecosystem in balance, and it actually helps protect nearby houses from any uncontrolled wildfires or accidental burns that occur.

“One of the objectives for the burn boss is to reduce that fuel load, which does ultimately help with any future potential for wildfires,” McCullen said. “If there is something that breaks out, it's not as severe because all of what could have been left on the ground as far as fuels are not available anymore.”

The “fuel” for these burns is everything from last year’s fallen pine needles to fresh new grasses and underbrush.

How does it work?

The trainees conducting the burn use a tool called a drip torch to lay fire on the ground in strips. It’s basically a canister of fuel with a lit end, so the fuel catches fire in small droplets before falling to the ground.

Once they’ve set a backing fire, they’ll lay another line upwind of the current burn area, allowing the wind to carry the new line back to the old.

The flames start out low, but get intense. As the two lines meet, they rise higher with some flames licking up to 10 feet in the air deeper in the forest. Jen Gustafson is a wildland fire preparedness coordinator in the mountains of North Carolina. She pointed out the fire dynamics as the two lines meet.

"So whenever the lines meet up, you'll see this like air shift, where all the smoke goes up,” she said, “the fire kind of sucks itself into the other fire.”

She said the burn bosses pay a ton of attention to the weather when they plan these burns. That’s why the smoke from this fire was heading into the state park across the road, and not the residential houses 100 feet away.

“So they're definitely playing with the wind. That's how they decided to light off this corner first, and letting the fire back so there's lower intensity,” she explained. “Obviously, if the wind was going the other way, they'd be running away from fire, we don't want to get burned.”

The entire endeavor is tightly controlled. After each strip is burned, they reassess and monitor before laying down the next line of fire. The intensity dies down until the flames are licking just a few inches of the ground on the backing fire, and then the next line of fire is laid down to rush in and meet it, driven by the wind. And if ladder fuels start bringing the fire up into the canopy of a tree, firefighters are on hand with water trucks to put those fires out before they get out of hand.

This prescribed fire can protect the suburbs from uncontrolled fires — if the fuel load is reduced early in the season on a safe day, it means any accidental fire or wildfire will be far less intense and easier to control.

But it’s not just about safety. Fire is also a necessary element of the ecosystem. Without fire, the ecosystem would fall out of its natural balance.

Fire: A necessary ingredient in a healthy ecosystem

Carmella Stirrat is a fire manager with the Nature Conservancy, and loves to nerd out about the ecological role of fire.

“The longleaf pine, they need bare soil for their seed to land into. Otherwise, they won't grow,” she explained. She pointed out some burned saplings nearby — there were probably a dozen of different sizes within a 10 square foot area, with the tallest ones surviving the brunt of the fire, and the little 2-foot tall ones scorched.

Carmella Stirrat stands in front of a fire in Carolina Beach State Park, March 1, 2023.
Kelly Kenoyer
Carmella Stirrat stands in front of a fire in Carolina Beach State Park, March 1, 2023.

“They need fire to clear out everyone that's growing because if you see right here, there's different aged longleaf. And they all will not be able to grow to mature tree," she said.

Without the burn, all those saplings would have survived, but fought each other for the scarce resources of water and sunlight. Taking out the youngest gives the older plants a better chance.

The burns also reduce the number of oaks and other hardwoods mixed into the forest, which helps maintain the balance of tree types in the forest, Stirrat said.

“We want everything that's supposed to be in the system to be here. And when we take fire out, we lose things," she said.

Other species, like Wiregrass, benefit from burns because the fire clears out the dead pine needles, allowing the seeds to get to the earth.

“Those needles will suppress that Wiregrass starting after that second and third year when we see a lot of needle casts really holding them down,” Stirrat explained.

These yearly and seasonal cycles are how ecologists and fire experts figure out how often a bit of land needs to be burned. It differs depending on the area- bogs need fire every year or two, whereas longleaf pine forest only needs it every three or five years, Stirrat said.

“In those bogs we will really start to lose those plants as we lose the sunshine. They get overcrowded. So we need to maintain fire in there a lot more frequently," she said.

Fire plays a role in protecting the Venus Flytraps, too- those rare plants native to the bogs of Southeastern North Carolina. They lie low to the ground and in wet soil, so fires don’t reach them directly. But those fires do cut the competition which grows higher up, giving the Flytraps a chance to get more sun.

Scientists are studying historic fire by looking at tree rings- including at the Forest and Fire Ecology Lab at UNCW. Stirrat says those tree rings may even hold evidence about the seasonality of fire and the impacts of rainy and dry seasons. That kind of research will help ecologists learn more about how fire operated before settlers began stopping all burns — so they can see what timing may work best to balance the ecosystem.

The February WTREX training burned more than 30 acres in Carolina Beach State Park in about two hours. Another burn in rural North Carolina burned hundreds of acres the same day. But within a few weeks, it will be hard for a non-expert to tell that the area was burned at all — that’s how quickly a lot of the plants come back.

Prescribed fire needs more staffing

Demand for prescribed burns has increased in recent decades since The National Forest Service recognized the mistake it had made for more than a century in repressing every wildfire as soon as it appeared on the landscape. That choice created an unsustainable increase in fuel within forests across the country- something the Forest Service now calls the “Wildfire Crisis.”

That demand is so strong, it’s sometimes unmet. According to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, about 60-70% of planned prescribed burns are completed. Half of those misses are because of weather, but the other half is because of insufficient staffing — there aren’t enough people who know how to do the work.

The aim of WTREX is to change that, by bringing more fire professionals from a variety of backgrounds into the field. According to Thomas Crate, a Fire Management Officer at NC State Parks, “there is room for many more people in prescribed fire, especially with our expanding land base. Weather is important for both effectiveness of the burn and for the safety of the public, preventing wildfires, and protection of nearby infrastructure.”

For more information about prescribed burns, go to ncprescribedfirecouncil.org

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.