Fire Learning Trail Launches

Visiting Linville Gorge on the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest it is hard not to notice the signs of fire. From the iconic wind-whipped table mountain pines gripping the cliffs at the edge of the gorge, to the characteristic clear views, fire has shaped Linville from the beginning.


Partnering with The Nature Conservancy, The Fire Learning Network, and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists, the Grandfather Ranger District has installed a series of informational signs along Old NC 105 on the west rim of Linville Gorge to share with the public information about fire safety, fire history, fire ecology, and firefighting. Visitors starting at the Information Cabin at the north end of Old NC 105 can visit the signs by driving south along the Fire Learning Trail as they take in the sights of the area.

The signs are accompanied by a series of pod casts featuring radio-style interviews with local fire managers that are available on iTunes (search: Fire Learning Trail) or on CDs distributed free of charge at the Linville Information Cabin.

The Fire Learning Trail is part of an effort to increase education on the history of the Grandfather Ranger District and the forces of nature that have shaped the forests. Specialists from The Nature Conservancy and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists were on hand at the Linville Gorge Spring Celebration last weekend to talk to the public about this exciting new outreach effort.


Rose’s Mountain Prescribed Burn

This was the first ever burn at the Rose’s Mountain unit, which was the first unit to be burned under the new Grandfather Restoration Burns project. The ecosystem in this unit is highly fire-adapted, and was a top-ranking area to prioritize burns under the project. We had a great burn, blackening 70-80% of the unit, and meeting all objectives. Fire managers were able to keep the flames low in young pine areas to protect their growth. Firefighters also protected the Mountains to Sea trail, which received no damage in the burn. Thanks not only to our firefighters on the ground, but to all the collaborative members who helped guide the Restoration Burns project! We are excited to be able to restore these areas. This unit in particular has Fire Learning Network vegetation monitoring plots that will be monitored under the CFLR agreement with Western Carolina University.


Date: March 9-10
Size: 3,100 acres
Location: North of Morganton, NC, South of Table Rock
Purpose: Restoration of fire-adapted communities, fuels reduction
Partners: The NC Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Department of Transportation, and Burke County Emergency Management

Wildlife and Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is an important tool for achieving the restoration goals of the Grandfather Restoration Project. Not only does the use of a low-intensity fire reduce fuels that lead to dangerous wildfires, but it also allows managers to restore fire-adapted forests.

Although burned areas can appear bare and inhospitable at first, low-intensity fire benefits the forest by increasing plant diversity, making important nutrients available to plants, allowing oaks to germinate, and providing food for wildlife. Animals are used to fire – they return to the area quickly, and plants regrow even faster than before the burn. Check out this cool time-lapse video showing what happens after a burn from the Clinchfield unit!

Clinchfield Wildlife Timelapse from Lisa Jennings on Vimeo.


Fighting Fire with Fire: Prescribed fires slow wildfire spread

The call came in at 3pm on a clear, hot Saturday in the middle of July: “We’ve got a report of smoke on Bald Knob north of Lake James.” For those of us responding that day, we had no idea we would be working on the wildfire in the summer heat for nearly a month.

Smoke visible just west of Bald Knob

Smoke visible just west of Bald Knob

As a firefighter for Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District you become intimately familiar with the lay of the land. Some areas evoke fond memories – rolling hills, majestic forests, bubbling brooks. Bald Knob is not one of those areas. The terrain west of Bald Knob is unforgiving. Steep slopes end in sheer cliffs. Thick evergreen shrubs and piled downed trees force you to crawl on hands and knees to get around.

But the area around Bald Knob was not always so unforgiving. Decades of fire suppression and widespread damage from the southern pine beetle outbreak of the late 1990’s changed the structure of the forest. What was once pine-dominated woodland with an open, grassy understory became choked with ingrowth over the years, leading to dangerous wildfire conditions.

Responding to the wildfire that hot, July afternoon, fire managers had a tough decision. Do you send your firefighters miles off trail to dangerous conditions to suppress a lightning fire in an ecosystem where fire would naturally occur? Or do you fall, back, manage the fire, and risk it moving towards private property?

Managers ultimately decided to manage the fire, allowing it to move naturally through the terrain. There was one key consideration that played into the decision – the existence of prescribed fire restoration units on the west, south, and east sides of the fire.

The decision lay with the District Ranger, Nicholas Larson. “We realized from start that this ignition was in a very difficult place to access.  Considering the heavy fuels and inability to use equipment in this type of terrain we knew suppression tactics would have a low probability of success,” Larson said.  “Pair all that with the fact that we have restoration treatments all over this ridge and it really was a great opportunity to step back and think about the appropriate response.”

Lake James Prescribed Burn - January 2015

Lake James Prescribed Fire – January 2015

Prescribed fire has been used as a tool to reduce wildfire risk and restore forest structure in the Southern Appalachians since the mid 1990’s. In fire adapted areas like Bald Knob, wildfire would historically occur every 5-10 years, reducing fuels from leaf litter, sticks, and logs that build up over time. These natural wildfires have been suppressed since the 1940’s.

Under the Grandfather Restoration Project, part of the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, the Grandfather Ranger District has increased the number of acres managed for fuels reduction 6-fold. Recent prescribed burns around Bald Knob were critical in slowing the spread of the fire. These treatments allowed the response to this wildfire to be one that focused on restoring fire adapted ecosystems and reducing fuels, without putting firefighters at risk.

Fire activity increased on the Bald Knob Fire as the long, hot July days crept into August. The prescribed fire units on the west, south, and east sides allowed firefighters to focus on keeping the fire off private property on the north end of Bald Knob. When the rains finally came in mid-August, the fire had burned over 1,200 acres. No structures were lost. No firefighters were injured.

Last week the Forest Service released a report detailing the effectiveness of the surrounding fuel treatments in managing the Bald Knob Fire.

With increased population growth in the Southern Appalachians, prescribed fire will continue to be an important tool in preventing wildfire spread. The Forest Service prioritizes burns where they can do the most good to reduce fuels, restore structure, and minimize risk to private property. We live near our National Forest because it provides the perfect setting for a mountain home. No one wants to lose their home in a wildfire. As we move into the winter fire season, rest assured that managers are out in the woods proactively fighting wildfire through fuel reduction treatments, restoration, and prescribed fire.

Faces of Fire: Wildland Fire Engines

It has been a BUSY fire season for all the folks on the Grandfather Ranger District who are involved in fire management. With fires burning on our district earlier this summer, and an intense fire season out west, we have had a lot of employees out on fire assignments (myself included).

There are many functions for fire personnel working on large fires, from those on hand crews digging lines, to firefighters working on fire engines, to finance personnel, to command staff. My job on large fires is as a Public Information Officer. Public Information Officers work to provide up to date fire information to local communities and media, as well as provide a look into the world of wildland firefighting.

One of the videos that I made while working on the Bald Knob wildfire on the Grandfather Ranger District looked at a National Forests in North Carolina type 6 wildland fire engine. This engine is used for wildfire and prescribed fire on our district. It is very different than the typical large structure-protection fire engines we see driving around town! Grandfather Ranger District Employee and Engine Boss Renardo Knight shows us around his engine in this video. Check it out!

GUEST POST: Controlled Burn Brings New Life

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).

Christmas Fern

Christmas Fern

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.


Dwarf Violet Iris

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.


Showy Orchid


Pink Lady’s Slipper

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.


Shortleaf Pine Seedling

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


The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy

One of the goals of the Grandfather Restoration Project prescribed fire program is to reduce wildfire risk. While this is a local goal, it is also being emphasized both regionally and nationally. The National Wildfire Management Cohesive Strategy, often simply referred to as Cohesive Strategy, is an effort on behalf of federal, state, local, and tribal governments and non-governmental organizations to collaboratively address growing wildfire problems in the U.S.  It is a strategic push to work collaboratively among all stakeholders and across all landscapes, using the best science, to make meaningful progress towards the three goals:

  1. Resilient Landscapes
  2. Fire Adapted Communities
  3. Safe & Effective Wildfire Response

The vision of Cohesive Strategy is “to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a nation, to live with wildland fire.”

In the last few years, more than 1000 individuals have provided comments, participated in forums, meetings, or responded to online survey requests which have helped guide the Cohesive Strategy process in the Southeast. Direction for the implementation of Cohesive Strategy in the Southeast comes from the Regional Action Plan. The plan contains 23 actions with 124 separate implementation tasks, grouped around five values and a set of identified barriers to success.  A selection of the Regional Action Plan items which relate to the goals of the Grandfather Restoration Project’s focus on ecosystem restoration and the utilization of prescribed fire include:

  • Support the creation of tools to better inform decision making processes and localized trade-off analysis for all levels of fire and land managers as well as planners and policy makers (what specific data means to managers, not just regional analysis of these data).
  • Develop and sustain capability and capacity requirements to plan and carry out landscape treatments, including prescribed fire.
  • Increase public awareness to ensure public acceptance and active participation in achieving landscape objectives.
  • Encourage planning efforts across landscapes between practitioners and land managers to address wildland fire, landscape resiliency and community safety while balancing other concerns and emphasizing plan development in high risk areas.
  • Work with regulatory agencies and entities (i.e., air quality) to ensure that prescribed fire remains a viable management tool and maximize flexibility for its use (including liability issues).
  • Encourage greater public smoke awareness through outreach and understanding.
  • Control invasive species that alter fire regimes and ecosystem function.
  • Support efforts to increase prescribed burning for ecosystem restoration.
  • Promote and use fire to emulate natural disturbance patterns to maintain and improve ecological systems, balancing social, cultural, and economic needs, especially over large contiguous landscapes.
  • Remove policy barriers and process complexities which affect the ability to effectively and efficiently share resources, not only for wildfire, but for fuels and prescribed fire work

Achievement of the Regional Action Plan is a lofty endeavor that will no doubt take extraordinary collaboration, which is the primary intent behind Cohesive Strategy. To read more about regional Cohesive Strategy efforts click here.