After the fires

As wildfires swept across 7,200 acres at Chimney Rock State Park and 6,400 acres at South Mountains State Park this month, there were plenty of comments on social media lamenting the imagined “devastation” and “loss” of these two much-beloved landscapes

That simply didn’t happen. Our rangers, foresters and natural resource managers – who spent many long days working to contain the blazes that continue to smolder – are quick to point out that in the end, the fires will benefit the two parks.

From childhood, many people still hold that incorrect mental image of a forest fire that leaves in its wake charred hillsides and thousands of trees transformed into matchsticks. In the southeastern U.S. particularly, that almost never happens to forests that have shrugged off wildfires throughout history.

A back burning operation at South Mountains State Park wildfire looks very much the same as a prescribed burn.

“Fire is a natural process anyway. It’s going to happen sooner or later,” South Mountains Park Superintendent Jonathan Griffith explained in a recent video. “In fact, we do prescribed burns from time to time in the park. It’s not like it’s going to completely destroy everything. Everything will grow back over…The fire itself, when it’s low intensity, will get rid of the understory and open it up and make it available for the larger trees to grow bigger.”

State parks, with the help of the North Carolina Forest Service and other partners, frequently stage prescribed burns designed to remove dead wood and leaf litter on the forest floor that fuels exactly the type of wildfires fought at these two state parks. In recent years, the prescribed fire program has been expanded into western state parks – where controlled burns can be more complex and demanding than those in the flatland forests of eastern North Carolina. Within a few months after a blaze – whether a wildfire or prescribed burn – greenery reappears on the forest floor. With fire having removed brushy understory, more sensitive plants have a chance to flourish again, often providing a more diverse diet for wildlife.

Area of Pilot Mountain State Park two years after it was swept by a wildfire.

The Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park – never directly threatened by fire – has reopened to visitors. That park’s Rumbling Bald Climbing Access and South Mountains will eventually reopen, but it will be a gradual process. Rangers and other staff must examine the trails for trees and limbs that might yet fall and other hazards. Already, parks and forestry officials are making plans to remove traces of fire containment lines and bulldozer tracks where possible to return the landscape to its natural state. The forest itself will do the rest.

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