USA — POCOSIN LAKES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE – Burned pond pine trees stand as if on stilts in this blackened scrub after a summer wildfire burned away the peat soil beneath their roots. All but dead, the pines have sprouted bright green clumps of needles directly from their charred trunks in a reflexive bid to survive.
Ferns have started reclaiming the blackened ground where firefighters battled the wildfire in June and July as it scorched 64 square miles of Eastern North Carolina. Black bears and deer are moving back onto the land.
The Pocosin Lakes refuge is starting to recover three months after a lightning strike ignited the wildfire.
Fueled by dense underbrush and dry conditions, the fire spread quickly and grew into one of the nation’s largest blazes for a time in June. It burned about 25,000 acres of the 110,106-acre Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and cost more than $18 million.
Even now, fire smolders underground in the carbon-rich peat soil in remote parts of the refuge. Foresters with the N.C. Forest Service fly over the refuge every few days in a helicopter scanning the blackened ground through an infrared camera looking for hot spots.
“Depending on the camera, it looks like heat shimmering on a road,” said Ed Christopher, district forester for the region.
Refuge officials remain concerned that a prolonged dry period could allow the underground fire to revive.
“The big concern is when we get into a dry period that it stokes back up,” said Howard Phillips, the refuge manager with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “In fall, it often gets dry.”
Phillips said that they hoped the recent rain had put out the ground fire but that they won’t know until the ground dries out again.
Fire is nothing new here. It has been a part of the natural cycle long before the refuge was created in 1990 to give sanctuary to migratory waterfowl and to protect the unique wetlands called pocosin — an Indian word for swamp on a hill. Tens of thousands of tundra swan and snow geese flock here each winter. Black bears, foxes and endangered red wolves roam the bog land year-round.
Most of the large animals escaped the fire.
“There is no doubt that some animals died,” Phillips said. But there were thousands of acres that didn’t burn where animals could seek refuge, and wildlife staff had seen little evidence of dead animals, Phillips said.
Evolving to survive
The natural ecosystem has evolved to survive regular, low intensity fires that burn vegetation yet leave root systems intact. For example, pond pine release more seeds when the cones are heated.
Much of the swampy land blackened by the Evans Road fire is crosshatched with ditches and canals that were installed in earlier decades to lower the water level and make the ground suitable for farming. It allowed the deep peat soil to dry out and made the refuge more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.
“This is a fire-adapted ecosystem,” Phillips said. “It’s the artificial ditching and draining that creates conditions where the fire can burn way down in the peat.”
But the canals also helped in fighting the fire. Crews pumped about 2.2 billion gallons of water through them to saturate the ground and try to contain the fire.
Refuge managers have allowed the water to remain on the land for about a month to allow it to penetrate the peat soil. Recently, they’ve installed pipes to lower water levels in some parts of the refuge and have drawn a plan to remove the temporary earthen dams in the canals if they need to lower water quickly if a tropical storm approaches.
Trees didn’t make it
David Kitts, assistant refuge manager, recalls earlier fires on refuge lands and said he was amazed the first time he saw burned pond pine trees put out needles from their trunks.
“I thought the trees are going to make it, but they didn’t,” Kitts said. “If you look at the trees next year, you won’t see any of them living where the roots were burned.”
As part of the recovery plan, Phillips said the wildlife service is considering replanting a portion of the refuge with Atlantic white cedar, a native species that once grew here but was harvested for roofing shingles and other commercial uses.
“We’ve seen diminishing stands of Atlantic white cedar,” Phillips said. “We’re trying to get back some remnant of it as best we can.”
Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist for Environmental Defense Fund, said the loss of trees would mean more runoff into the canals that could harm coastal waters that provide nursery areas for crab, fish and shrimp.
“If you look at a forest of pine trees, they are like soda straws sucking water out of the ground and releasing it into the air,” Rader said. “There are going to be bigger pulses of water coming off these burned zones.”
Rader said the fish and wildlife service needed to continue working to reverse the effects of ditching and restore water levels that generally prevented big fires.
Impact on hunters
The refuge manager hasn’t decided whether to open the refuge to hunting this fall. Mike Noles, who operates Conman’s hunting guide service and cottages beside the refuge, said the fire would improve hunting by clearing out underbrush. At the same time, Noles said, the fire burned down into the peat in areas creating huge potholes and unstable footing for hunters.
“You could be walking along and hit one of those spots and just go out of sight,” he said. “You could lose a tractor in it.”
Noles said the fire’s benefit to hunting should last for years. The removal of the underbrush allows new plant growth that provides food for deer and small game and makes it easier for hunters to access once impenetrable thickets.
“Wildlife is already moving back in there,” Noles said. “A lot of the area is already greening back up. Starting next year for the next three or four years, it will be a mecca.”