U.S. Forest Service scientists predicted in 2014 that climate change will produce longer fire seasons with more wide-ranging impacts throughout the South over the next 20 to 40 years. Those predictions came true sooner than expected this fall, with extremely dry forest conditions and late-falling leaves (a result of record-high temperatures) contributing to wildfires that burned across nearly 70,000 acres in Western North Carolina.
“Under warm and dry conditions, a fire season becomes longer, and fires are easier to ignite and spread,” wrote the researchers in the paper, “Future Wildfire Trends, Impacts and Mitigation Options in the Southern United States.”
Relief seems to be in sight, however. At press time, weather forecasts predicted rain on the evening of Monday, Nov. 28, with heavier precipitation expected to move in on Tuesday. According to an update issued by the Joint Information Center for WNC wildfires on Nov. 27, “This wetting rain should help extinguish any active wildfires, and little to no impacts from smoke are expected.”
The factors that led to the extensive wildfires will remain a concern long after this fall’s fires have been quelled. The region’s history of fire suppression over the past century provided an abundance of fuel for this year’s wildfires, points out Adam Warwick, stewardship manager and wildlife biologist at The Nature Conservancy of North Carolina.
Over the last four years, Warwick has worked with the N.C. Forest Service on containing forest fires, carrying out prescribed burns and educating residents on prevention and preparedness. Like the Forest Service scientists, Warwick believes wildfires will likely become a more common occurrence in the area.
He and other experts note, however, this isn’t all bad. Forest fires remove flammable material while creating open areas that benefit some wildlife species and encourage new hardwood tree growth.
Small spark, large flame
“In North Carolina, 99 percent of our fires are human caused,” says Lisa Jennings, public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. According to Jennings, the largest share of these fires comes from backyard brush burning. Total burning bans are now in effect in 47 of the state’s 100 counties. Even so, Jennings says residents must remain vigilant for possible triggers. “Anything that creates sparks can potentially cause a large fire,” she says.
Brian Haines, agency information officer for the North Carolina Forest Service, echoes Jennings’ caution. Small hazards can lead to big wildfires, he says. Potential fire sources can include such innocuous-seeming triggers as a tossed cigarette, sparks from a chain dragging from a car, a hot vehicle parked on dry grass and discarded wood-stove ashes, according to Haines.
Ashes are a particular challenge, he says. “Folks are heating their homes with wood stoves, and then they take those ashes and put them outside. The problem is, a lot of times those ashes aren’t completely out. Then a wind comes along, and an ember gets up and gets into the woods, and then you’re off and running.”
Fueling the flames
A key tactic for containing fires is to scratch or dig a line of bare dirt around the edges of the flames, separating fuel (leaves, sticks and pine needles) from fire. “We get down to the mineral soil, to things that can’t burn,” Warwick says.
But warm temperatures have caused trees to hold onto their leaves later than usual, Warwick explains. As firefighters worked to bring the fires under control, new leaves continued to fall, creating a bridge of fuel and allowing flames to cross the dug lines.
In an email, Warwick writes, “It’s also worth noting that the dry conditions … have dramatically increased the amount of fuel available to burn. So while it’s normally rare for fire to consume more than half of the leaf litter layer and decaying logs over 8 inches [in] diameter, the current fires are routinely consuming over 90 percent of the leaves, consuming all of those logs and bigger, which is causing more particulates in the air and thus the dense smoke.”
While many of the fires have been low in severity (and therefore easier to contain), Warwick and Haines both say that differences in the forest fuels available from one location to another can lead to varying levels of severity. “If you have a lot of rhododendron or laurel that are very dry, that may be a very intense fire,” says Haines.
Warwick adds that higher winds and lower humidities have also played a role in increasing the magnitude of the fires.
History of suppression
“For years, nationwide, there was a philosophy that you put out every fire,” says Tim Mowry, public information officer for the Maple Springs and Old Roughy Fires.
As a result of this policy of fire suppression, Mowry notes, a large amount of fuel accumulated in area forests. Warwick points out that many of the areas that recently burned in Western North Carolina had not seen flames in nearly 70 years.
North Carolina passed its Prescribed Burn Act in 1999. The law recognized fire as an important forest management tool, and the state began carrying out prescribed burns the following year, notes Jennings.
“We’ve been getting some good work done,” Haines says of the N.C. Forest Service’s use of prescribed fires. “But obviously we haven’t gotten everywhere,” he remarks.
A 2016 N.C. Cooperative Extension report examined the history of early controlled burns. The paper, “Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat,” notes that, historically, much of the state burned every one to 10 years. Native Americans used controlled burns to “improve grazing conditions for wildlife, clear land for farming and improve their own safety from concealed attackers and from wildfires.” Later, European immigrants adopted the practice for similar reasons.
Prescribed fires reduce the volume of leaf litter, downed wood and brush, which helps reduce the risk of severe wildfires. “If you look at a wildfire that is in an area that has not been previously burned by prescribed fire, it burns really hot and intense,” Haines explains. “Then it gets to an area that has been prescribed, and it just drops down; it almost dies.”
Fire’s constructive role
Throughout this fall’s bout of wildfire activity, resource advisers have been on the ground, working alongside firefighters. These advisers, who bring expertise in biological or physical sciences, highlight the locations of rare species and sensitive habitats. “We have regulations on where we can and cannot use fire retardants, unless human life and property are threatened,” says Sheryl Bryan, fisheries and wildlife biologist for the National Forests in North Carolina. These measures are intended to prevent chemicals from seeping into streams, rivers and lakes.
Katie Greenberg, research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, notes that these fires won’t have much effect on animals. “None of the literature suggests direct mortality is a huge concern,” she says.
Warwick agrees. He points out that a variety of species — including woodpeckers, bark-gleaning birds (such as nuthatches), songbirds, turkeys, ruffed grouse and bats — actually benefit from more open forest canopies, which often result from large-scale fires.
The flames could also boost certain tree species. Oaks and Southern pines require open forest and high light conditions to regenerate, Warwick points out, as do berry-producing shrubs like blueberry and blackberry.
“Any effect on forests is not going to be hugely long-lasting,” says Greenberg. “Each condition of a forest, whether it’s recently ravaged by fire or cut, provides habitat for some things and reduces suitable habitat for other things. So it’s just a different condition.”
When asked if wildfires will become a more common occurrence in this area, Warwick hesitates. “That’s the $64,000 question,” he says. “Our region’s getting warmer. We’re projected to have more droughts. The models mostly agree that this is going to be the case for our area.”
Jennings notes that cycles do exist, pointing to the busy fire seasons of 2000 and 2007. However, she adds, the region’s droughts typically occur during the summer. “This fall drought is something that is really unusual for this area, and we’ve definitely been seeing warmer falls [and] later frosts,” she says.
Data from the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory reveal that precipitation amounts for September and October, taken together, set the record for the driest two months since record-keeping began at the site in 1934, according to Chelcy Ford Miniat of the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station. Except for January, the average temperature for every month in 2016 has been well above average, and July and September broke records.
The Coweeta Lab is located south of Franklin in Macon County.
“The long-term record is seeing drier dry years, wetter wet years and longer stretches of rainless periods,” says Miniat. “When conditions are this dry, and fuel loads are high … the potential for forest fires increases.”
Haines shares that outlook. “The drought situation is going to lead to more wildfires,” he says. “And if we do have rising temperatures, of course that will feed into that, as well.”
Line of defense
While the fires destroyed only two structures, Haines notes that many more structures were threatened by the flames. Most are homes and businesses. Experts agree that residents should take steps to limit future risks by creating what they call a “defensible space.”
“Everybody in this area loves the idea of living in the woods,” says Jennings. “But you have to clear space around your house and know that wildfires are something that you’re going to have to deal with.”
When firefighters arrive at a home that lies in the path of a wildfire, they quickly assess the situation, Warwick says. If shrubs line the structure’s walls and trees tower over the roof, the firefighters move on to the next property. On the other hand, if a home has one or two shrubs the team can quickly remove, or manageable amounts of leaf litter, efforts will be made to save the home.
Experts advise that lawns should extend at least 30 feet around all sides of a structure. They also suggest metal roofs for homes situated in heavily wooded areas.
Exit strategies also warrant planning, as many isolated rural communities are accessed by a single road. If residents try to leave as firetrucks are entering an area, traffic jams can create dangerous delays. Thus, fire agencies urge residents to pack important items and prepare for a possible evacuation well in advance. Then residents should remain alert and leave the area as soon as the call goes out.
At press time, around 2,100 firefighters remained in WNC to battle the wildfires, while 30 aircraft have been deployed in the area to assist in the effort. According to Jennings, 42 states are represented. Most of the firefighting crews involved in efforts to control and extinguish WNC’s fires have worked in two-week shifts, putting in 16-hour days.