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April 30, 2009

Recent wildfires close Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve

Numerous homes and other property along with thousands of acres were recently burned in the Myrtle Beach area due to wildfires. Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Horry County was hit hard with nearly 8,000 of the 9,383-acre preserve ravaged by fire. Due to safety concerns and ongoing mop-up of smoldering areas, Lewis Ocean Bay will be closed to public access until further notice. The area will be re-opened as soon as public safety can be assured and post-fire evaluation activities are complete.

Deanna Ruth, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist based at Samworth Wildlife Center in Georgetown County, says the destruction of habitat is widespread in Lewis Ocean Bay, but they haven't seen a large die-off of animals. "It seems the animals were able to retreat from the oncoming fire," she said. Lewis Ocean Bay is home to such creatures as deer, raccoon, fox, squirrel, quail and black bear.

Prescribed burning and other forestry management techniques at the preserve were also directly responsible for saving 83 of 85 trees with active Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Prescribed or controlled fires reduce or even eliminate fuel loads, thereby making wildfire on that area impossible or unlikely for some time afterwards. And wildfires are less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often either lose intensity or go out when they reach areas that have been prescribed burned. It is much better to deal with a predictable amount and direction of smoke at a known time under prescribed conditions in a planned fire that reduces forest fuels, than to deal with a wildfire on that same land, a wildfire that may burn under dangerous weather conditions such as in a drought and in low humidity and high winds.

Ruth also noted the wildfires, or preferably prescribed burns, are beneficial to some native plants such as rare insectivorous Venus flytraps or pitcher-plants. "Pitcher plants, for instance, require open, sunny positions in the landscape and all are fire adapted," Ruth said. "Fire increases pitcher plant habitat."

Lewis Ocean Bay has natural attractions year-round. In January, wire grass and migrating songbirds are on display. From March through June, pitcher-plants and wildflowers make a wonderful show. Late September through spring, songbirds abound and in the fall, more wildflowers, such as blazing star and meadow beauties, are prolific.

And then, there are the Carolina Bays. Lewis Ocean Bay has 23 Carolina Bays—the largest number of undisturbed Carolina Bays in one place in South Carolina. Carolina Bays are elliptical or oval depressions of uncertain origin in North and South Carolina, along with a few bays in Georgia, Virginia and Delaware. They are considered to be a type of isolated freshwater wetland. The depression of a bay fills with rainwater, usually in winter and spring, and dries in the summer months. This determines the plants and animals that inhabit the bay. Dense thickets of plants, such as blueberries, huckleberries, fetterbush and zenobia cover the bays, and mingle with sweet bay, catbriar, gallberry and titi. Thin canopies of pond pine and loblolly bay trees usually surround the bays. This kind of evergreen shrub bog is called a pocosin, an Indian word which means "swamp on a hill." Sugar white sand rims may occur along portions of a bay or encircle an entire bay.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.

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