By Clint Calhoun
Almost eight months have passed (as I write this) since the Party Rock Fire. As time has passed and we’ve seen the mountain turn green again as spring came. Now summer is here and fire scars are apparent around outcroppings and along ridges where flames ran high and hot, driven by upslope breezes. At the time, many worried that the beauty of Rumbling Bald and connecting mountaintops would be permanently devastated and that the impacts to the community would be long-lasting, but those concerns were quickly allayed as we saw the wildflowers bloom in the spring and the tourists returned en masse, many interested in seeing the aftermath of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Hickory Nut Gorge since the 1916 Flood.
Since the fire, I have taken it upon myself to photo document as many post-fire effects as possible, in order to learn as much as I can about fire behavior in an area that has been largely un-impacted by fire. That’s not to say that we haven’t had fire in the Gorge before, but in terms of any sort of regularity, fire has been largely suppressed in the overall landscape of Hickory Nut Gorge. This is partly due to the fact that the topography and forest makeup of the Gorge does not lend itself to frequent fires and prescribed fires are very difficult to control in an area that has so many steep cliffs, outcroppings, and ravines. This is not to say that forests won’t burn, as we well know they will, but conditions have to be just right to get the right kind of fire to be effective.
As I visit different areas where fire burned, I see varying effects. The brown areas on the mountain that you see from down in the valley are dead, burned trees. Underneath those brown patches, you can start to see green as regeneration begins to occur, with seemingly dead trees producing sucker sprouts from root crowns and numerous herbaceous species starting to appear. The effect is similar to what you would see after a forest has been clearcut, where new growth in the form of multiple stems come up from the cut stumps. The only difference here is that the tree skeletons remain until they fall or are cut down.
One of the most incredible fire responses that I have seen across the majority of forest types is the coverage of ferns. Typically ferns don’t dominate the forest floor, but post-fire the fern diversity appears to have increased and their densities have increased. The size and densities of various herbaceous species has increased in the burn area. Light gaps created where trees are dying or have already succumbed to their wounds are creating clearings where grasses and other forbs can establish until trees have a chance to re-colonize.
Another interesting response is the changes in the shrub layer. The fire had a huge impact on mountain laurel and rhododendron. Mountain laurel has largely responded by starting to regenerate from their root crowns, but the large rhododendrons did not fair so well and are largely dead. This is because many of these individuals have lived way longer than was naturally intended. Rhododendron has come to inhabit some of these natural communities, growing large and creating vast amounts of shade, but as a result of their overwhelming presence, they have reduced diversity because there has been no significant fire to keep them in check and maintain a normal growth form.
Party Rock before the fire was an area covered with vegetated mats that were inhabited by a few grasses and spikemoss, with occasional other species scattered around in the deeper mats. On the upper slope of Party Rock, Virginia pine saplings grew in the thin soil. During the fire almost every sprig of vegetation was consumed, leaving a blackened moonscape. The only trees remaining were a few red cedars that somehow managed to escape the main part of the fire. Today, if you visit Party Rock, it no longer looks like a moonscape. Almost all of the soil mats have new vegetation. Much of the spikemoss is gone, most of it completely consumed in flames, but it has been replaced by numerous grasses and other herbaceous species that before only maintained small populations. Now Party Rock is green and lush. A normally dry place, recent rains and the increased plant diversity have made some areas of Party Rock almost boggy, which is something that I’ve never seen up there. While what we’re observing up there is mostly not unexpected, it’s so cool to see these expected responses, but on a scale that could not have been anticipated.
This is not to say that there aren’t negative impacts. Already we are seeing invasions of non-native invasive species such as princesstree and oriental bittersweet. Again, this was an expected consequence, but it is one of those discouraging realities that land managers will have to deal with. There are a lot of dead trees out there and more will die. In the short-term, as mortality occurs it will increase the amount of available fuel for future fires, create more light gaps for invasive species establishment, and allow for re-colonization of some less desirable, fire-intolerant species. This means that there is a lot of work to do.
For land managers it will be imperative to try to conduct periodic prescribed fires in the future where possible. In many cases this will simply not be feasible, but that does not lessen the importance or the need. For communities and citizens of the Gorge, being firewise and understanding the role of fire in the environment will go a long way towards improving the health of our forests, as we seek to manage fire hazards and control invasive species on private property, particularly in the area we refer to as the urban/wildland interface. The important thing is that we never forget that the risk of fire is ever present and that it is a natural dynamic in the landscape. Understanding that concept is key to making wise decisions that protect property, lives, and keep our forests healthy. If you want to keep up with what’s happening with fire recovery, check out my blog (shameless plug…I know) where you can see pictures and descriptions of what’s happening in the forest. Until next time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure. Check out Clint’s blog at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com.