If you’ve visited the reedy creek side of the park in the last few days, you may have noticed a change in the forest near Picnic Shelter #2. No, the trees haven’t started leafing out just yet. Nor have the maples started blooming their tiny red flowers either. The change you’ll see is on the forest floor where the charred remains of old sweetgum saplings lay peacefully on the blackened earth next to burn marks at the base of Shortleaf and Loblolly Pines. On Valentine’s Day, Monday, February 14th , there was more than just love in the air in Cary, North Carolina.
There was a column of white smoke from a prescribed burn performed by the Rangers of William B. Umstead State Park, the State Park’s Burn Crew, and the State Parks Natural Resources Team. Although the prescribed burn was only 7 acres of the nearly 5,600 acres comprising William B. Umstead State Park, it represented a positive step in the right direction for conservation and resource management in the park for many reasons.
Source: Daniel Dey, Richard Guyette, and Michael Stambaugh
What does this brightly colored map above indicate? Does the deep orange and red show the places where people are retiring to, seeking warmer weather and lower taxes? (No, but interestingly enough there does seem to be somewhat of a correlation.) Well, according to research conducted out of the University of Missouri in 2011, this map shows the Mean Fire Interval for different geographic locations in our country. That’s a fancy way of saying how often natural wildfires took place between the years 1650 and 1850. Natural wildfires are largely defined as fires started by lightning strikes but can also, in much rarer occasions, occur from a concentration of the sun’s heat and even sometimes by meteor strikes.
If you look at the blue star I added to the map, our area of North Carolina lies somewhere on the line showing that a wildfire naturally took place about every 4 years or so. This make sense seeing that in my 11 years at this park, I have responded to two different wildfires started by lightning strikes. What is different from the late 1600’s was that we extinguished our two lightning strike fires before they got to be more than an acre or two using modern tools and technology. The fires that were naturally started before large scale European settlement of the continent could burn for tens of thousands of acres before being naturally extinguished by rainfall or by reaching a river or other natural barrier. Gradually creeping along the forest floor for days or weeks before ceasing their slow-motion cleansing of pine needles and other debris dropped at the base of the continuous and uninterrupted forest east of the Mississippi River.
Does this mean that the land comprising Wake County was just some sort of constant flame-ridden hellscape where nothing could survive? Actually, quite the opposite. The lower intensity fires that did burn in the southeast had less fuel to consume because of the more frequent natural burns that did take place. Additionally, the flora and fauna that once called (and still calls) this place home are largely fire adapted if not fire dependent. Animals naturally seek shelter either above or below the flames, and the trees that are supposed to be inhabiting this ecosystem have adapted natural defenses to the short but intense bursts of heat.
Species like the Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) are one of these fire adapted plant species that used to comprise a larger swath of this forest hundreds of years ago. Along with its cousin, the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris), Shortleaf Pine saplings survive slow moving, low intensity fires on the forest floor while other trees may not. However, a much more abundant species in our park today, the Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) was normally found in wetter areas or along streambanks where fires wouldn’t naturally reach. These Loblolly Pines were planted by the thousands when the park was first constructed back in the 1930s and 1940s to reforest the largely barren farm fields left behind by the farming families of the Ebenezer Community. Younger Loblolly saplings cannot regenerate when top-killed by fire while similarly aged Shortleaf and Longleaf roots survive under the soil and can regenerate their stems and needles not long after fire moves through.
After a burn, younger deciduous tree species like maples and sweetgums tend to die after their thin bark is damaged by the fire. The hardier pines, older Chestnut Oaks and White Oaks, grasses, and perennial wildflowers survive and/or return unaffected and the more natural order of the forest is renewed. This being the second time we’ve burned this 7-acre unit in the past 5 years, we are starting to see these changes take place and it brings us hope that we can start to see more prescribed burns occurring on bigger acreages in the park in the coming months and years. So, don’t forget to check the William B. Umstead State Park homepage before you decide to go for your next hike in the future. The trail you are hoping to wander may be closed due to a 70 or 100-acre prescribed burn being intentionally set by qualified and trained naturalists and State Park staff members. And be sure to check in on our Reedy Creek parking lot burn the next time you get a chance. You might just see a Shortleaf Pine sapling emerging from the ashes as it reaches towards the sky in its (now more) natural habitat.
To read more about the benefits of prescribed fire and some of the native plant and animal species that prescribed fire can help, take a look at the websites I included below. And if you can’t make it out to the park, check out a picture I took.
Thanks for reading,
Ranger Nick Dioguardi
Picture taken February 19, 2022 at William B. Umstead State Park – Near Reedy Creek Parking Lot
The Umstead Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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