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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

Sept. 12, 2011

Prescribed burning in Jocassee Gorges targets ecosystem restoration

Many species and ecosystems require fire periodically to ensure their survival, and that’s why prescribed burns have been a part of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ management of the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges in northern Pickens and Oconee counties.

People in the upstate have seen smoke signals emerging from the mountaintops north of SC Highway 11 in Pickens County for the last few years. Controlled, or prescribed, burning is a common practice in the Lowcountry, but the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has applied fire science and principles to roughly 5,000 acres in the mountains as well.

“The objective of the prescribed burns is to maintain the ecological integrity of these lands,” said Mark Hall, DNR wildlife biologist, forester and Jocassee Gorges land manager, “and to provide for human safety by reducing the amount of fuel, thereby reducing the chance of catastrophic wildfire. For many of these ecosystems, it’s not a matter of 'if' they will burn, but rather 'when.' We like to choose the 'when'.”

Burning has been done when the weather was suitable to allow for a safe burn, including the rapid rising and dispersal of smoke, Hall said. Once weather conditions are right for the burn, it takes four to 10 hours for the active burning to be completed, although scattered stumps, logs and dead trees may smolder slowly through the night. Burn areas are surrounded by fire breaks, which include existing roads, streams, plowed fire breaks and hand lines put in with rakes and shovels in sensitive areas.

“Over eons of time, many native plants, animals and habitats in the southeastern United States have adapted to the presence of recurring fire,” Hall said. “Many species and ecosystems are now rare because of fire suppression over the last century or so. Those systems actually need fire to ensure their survival. We’ve burned about 5,000 acres since 2004 to help restore natural processes.”

Hall emphasized that since prescribed burning requires careful timing and a thorough knowledge of weather and fire behavior, highly trained fire personnel with the DNR and S.C. Forestry Commission manage and conduct all aspects of the controlled burns.

“Besides the ecological benefits of prescribed fire, it also has the added benefit of reducing fuel on the forest floor and lessening the chances of a catastrophic fire, which can threaten homes and people,” Hall said.

“Because fire has been suppressed for so long in some places, you get dangerous buildups of fuel and increase the chances for a wildfire that can destroy property and lives. The wildfires we’ve seen across the United States in the last 15 years, due in large part to past fire suppression, underscore the need for prescribed fire.”

By using a prescribed burn—when wind, temperature and humidity conditions are appropriate to remove some of the forest fuel like leaves, pine needles and twigs—fire managers can greatly reduce the chances of a catastrophic wildfire. After controlled burns are completed, the homes and properties close to Jocassee Gorges will be much less likely to be in the path of a wildfire, because the fuel is reduced or eliminated.

 “Some people become upset when there is smoke in the air they don’t know the reason for the fire,” Hall said. “We’ve been getting the word out about prescribed fire to our neighbors in the community. If we carefully plan and conduct a burn when weather conditions favor smoke dispersal, this reduces smoke-related problems. Dealing with a little bit of smoke now is infinitely better than trying to control a raging wildfire later.”

Since 2004, fire has been used every two to three years in the pine woodlands along the Shooting Tree Road, where visitors may enter off Cleo Chapman Highway in Eastatoee Valley. Fire has also been applied every three to four years in the woodlands adjacent to the Horsepasture Road, deep within Jocassee Gorges. The burned sites are on the south side of the main road, about 5 miles in from the Laurel Valley Entrance off US Highway 178. Visitors are encouraged to observe the difference in the vegetation in those areas. The change in the plant composition in the woodlands is quite noticeable, especially to songbirds, black bear and wild turkey that might be seen in those areas. Many of the plants that volunteer after fire is applied offer key components to the habitat those animals depend upon.

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