Guest Post by Owen Carson, Plant Ecologist, Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design Inc.
I have spent several days over the last two weeks hiking along Bark Camp Ridge through the Wilson Creek controlled burn as part of an invasive species control project along upper Wilson Creek. I also had the opportunity last year to observe the pre-burn condition of the forest. Through those successive visits I was able to see the full effect of the fire on the forest structure and how it has started to restore balance within the ecosystem. Before the burn, the dense understory was dominated by ericaceous species such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), punctatum (Rhododendron carolinianum), blueberries (Vaccinium sp.), huckleberries (Gaylussacia sp.), and dog hobbles (Leucothoe sp.); the mid-story was crowded with Eastern white pine saplings (Pinus strobus).
After the fire swept through, the shrub layer on mid to upper slopes was reduced significantly, and that’s when I began to see an explosion of regeneration within the herbaceous layer. First to pop up was a suite of ferns; bright green stems of bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), and hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) and robust, downy fiddleheads of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) were in stark contrast with the charred ground.
Then came clumps of dwarf violet iris and dwarf crested iris (Iris verna and I. cristata), their nearly-fluorescent blossoms like splashes of paint. Large clusters of gaywings (Polygala paucifolia), a relatively uncommon plant of intact acidic forests, began to show their bright pink flowers, stimulated by an increase in light to the forest floor.
Last but not least the orchids made their appearance, notably showy orchids (Galearis spectabilis) and pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule), the latter being so stimulated by the fire that thousands of individual plants in various stages of flowering were observed.
On my last day out there, I stumbled across numerous emergent seedlings of the fire-dependent pitch pine (P. pungens), the cones of which require the heat of a fire to release their seeds and prepare them for germination.
Watching these transitions was quite an amazing sight, and a true testament to the benefits of prescribed fire in forest communities where it has been long-suppressed.
Burn Stats: Date – March 18, Size – 1240 Acres, Location – Wilson Creek Headwaters near Gragg, Purpose – Fuel Reduction and Restoration of Fire Adapted Ecosystems, Partners – US Forest Service, NC Forest Service, PatRick Environmental, Treatment – 5th Prescribed Burn