State agency issued warning following investigation into last month's Pulp Road wildfire
The North Carolina Forest Service, which was called on to help put out the wildfire that began in the Green Swamp Nature Preserve, concluded its investigation into the fire, issuing a warning to an employee of the agency that was originally in charge of the initial prescribed burn.
In June, a prescribed burn in Brunswick County’s Green Swamp nature preserve became a full-fledged wildfire, which ended up burning close to 16,000 acres of land — and a formal warning for a state employee.
Following an investigation by the North Carolina Forest Service, a warning was issued to NC Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) regional forester Ken Shughart for the WRC’s role in the June prescribed burn-turned-wildfire. The Forest Service confirmed the warning to WHQR, but did not provide details.
A spokesperson for NC Forest Service said, in general, an investigation can result in a citation, a responsible party waiver, or a warning — so long as a warning has not been issued within the last three years.
So, despite this tract having been burned several times before, it’s safe to say that at some point this most recent prescribed burn did not go according to plan. But it also seems WRC was hampered, at least in part, by jurisdictional issues.
Different portions of the Green Swamp are maintained by two environmental agencies: the Nature Conservancy, which operates the majority of the preserve, and WRC, which maintains the gameland. Once the fire spilled into the Nature Conservancy, permitting issues prevented WRC from assisting in fire containment operations.
The fire began as a prescribed burn in the game land portion of the Green Swamp nature preserve conducted by the WRC on Tuesday, June 13. According to the official timelines provided by both the NC Forest Service and WRC, within 48 hours crews discovered reignition in two separate areas northwest of the initial burn — in the Nature Conservancy’s land.
By Thursday, June 15, the fire reached a 70-year-old fuel load of dead vegetation in the Green Swamp, which meant trying to simply put it out would be near impossible.
It was out of control. It was at this point that the NC Forest Service was called in to begin fighting the fire.
Once the NC Forest Service was brought aboard on Thursday, June 15, incident coordinator Shane Hardee told WHQR he rigorously assessed the situation using computer modeling and on-the-ground surveillance. With little containment possible to the west, his crew attempted to pull the fire into an area where they could mitigate it with the incoming sea breeze. They quickly moved to burn unignited fuel loads to create an edge that would hopefully slow the march of the blaze, and force it north where they could construct a clean line.
After equipment issues and some troubling computer-generated predictions, Hardee and his team concluded that their best hope to put out the fire was to let it burn out the conservatory in a controlled manner and hope the weather would provide much-needed assistance.
The Green swamp is a pocosin ecosystem, which means the soil is soft, sandy, and accompanies a high water table. These conditions were impractical for firefighters and Hardee worried that if someone got stuck, retrieval operations would be complicated and, worse, high-risk.
“I made a decision that the only practical thing to do from a firefighter safety standpoint and a probability of success was to just begin to burn the entire conservancy out,” said Hardee.
On the morning of Friday, June 16, his team picked up where they left off, now letting the fire burn westward.
A shift in winds was predicted to arrive Sunday, which would turn the heat up on an already fast-paced, dangerous situation. The team needed to work fast.
Their strategy of letting the fire burn in a straight line to the west had proven successful by Saturday afternoon.
The fire was mostly out, and now crews turned their attention to clearing out residual smoke and the remaining fuel load.
By this point “0% containment” was still being reported by these agencies, leading to a lot of public confusion and concern about the state of the fire.
The definition of containment has a lot more to do with how much of the fire is surrounded by a control line that can’t be crossed. In this case, there were recently burned areas that formed natural containment lines around the burn, but wouldn’t count for the percentage.
Percent contained land would be areas the crews could confidently walk away from without fear of reignition, not so much how much of the fire is out.
Still, some had even begun posting theories online, suggesting the fire was still out of control. But aside from a few short periods of time between Thursday and Friday, there was never a point where the fire wasn't being managed by Hardee’s team. They had to let it burn in order to have some control over it, Hardee said.
There was never a time when the fire threatened businesses or residences in Brunswick county, officials repeatedly said.
Experts were worried about this area for a while and viewed it as a ticking time bomb. After a lightning strike nearby the previous year, they worried that it would ignite a blaze similar to the one seen this summer. It remains unclear how much effort went into reducing the 70-year buildup in the Green Swamp prior to the June Wildfire.
But going forward there is an eagerness on the part of people like Hardee and organizations like the Conservancy and Wildlife Resources Commission, to begin looking at ways to make sure fuel loads like that don't build up in the future.
“The problem with the Conservancy is there are not good ways to break that up and compartmentalize it in smaller areas. I want to meet with them in October and at least have some discussion," Hardee told WHQR. "Now that it's been burned and all of that fuel has been reset back to what we call an early successional stage, is there opportunity that we might look at burning the whole pocosin, that whole conservancy on a regular burn interval, so that it doesn't build back up to that?”
Experts are also trying to assuage public concerns about prescribed burns going forward.
The dramatic images of ash raining from the sky and large, orange pyrocumulus clouds are still fresh in people’s memory, and residents could easily be be forgiven for worrying about future wildfires in the area.
But these conditions were very much outliers, induced by that treacherous 70-year build-up. There is a real need for prescribed burns, and just because one went awry does not mean this will become the norm, experts say.
“I completely understand public fear,” said WRC Land and Water Access Division Chief, Daron Barnes.
“I mean, you probably know that, California, some of these other places where you see these videos and images of their fire, there's those wildfires that are just raging and threatening people's houses and stuff. But that's where people need to keep, keep in mind that in those locations like California, they have suppressed fire over the years, they have not allowed for controlled or prescribed fire to occur on those properties,” he continued.
In fact, much of North Carolina’s ecosystems are fire-dependent. Even the rare venus fly traps and pitcher plants that were in the fire’s path rely on periodic blazes for survival.
In areas of the Green Swamp that were burned earlier in the year, much of the vegetation and native plant species have returned — including the fly traps.
It’s increasingly clear more preventive measures should've been taken to prevent or extinguish the 70-year fuel load in the nature preserve before the wildfire, and that to some extent mistakes took place during the prescribed burn operations. However, ecologically speaking, the next 70 years of the Green Swamp’s life will be better off for having been burned.
WHQR requested a comment from WRC about the warning issued for the Green Swamp fire. A spokesperson said there was no one available to respond by Friday evening. This article will be updated if and when WRC does provide a response.