Though destructive and deadly, wildfires are also nature’s way of making room for new life

The Pinnacle Mountain Fire became the largest in the state’s modern history, affecting 10,623 acres.
Image Credit: S.C. Forestry Commission

PICKENS, South Carolina — When people and property are endangered, wildfires are viewed as calamities. And, indeed, to those directly affected, they can be deadly and devastating. But from Mother Nature’s point of view, wildfires play an integral role in the health of a forest by thinning trees, burning dead or decaying matter and returning nutrients to the soil.

Unlike the horrific occurrences in Tennessee, there has been no loss of human life or significant structural damage in South Carolina this year due to wildfires. But the recent Pinnacle Mountain Fire, as it is now named, became the largest in South Carolina’s modern history, affecting 10,623 acres and encompassing a 31-mile perimeter that included Table Rock and Pinnacle mountains.

After four days of much-needed rain, the wildfire – which was accidentally started by an escaped campfire Nov. 9 – was declared officially contained Dec. 5 by incident command officials. Preparations to reduce erosion that might have occurred during fire suppression activities are already under way.

“Fire has always been a natural occurrence in our ecosystem that has many benefits,” said Derrick Phinney, a Clemson Cooperative Extension natural resources division leader based in Dorchester. “As far back as the American Indians, fire was a main staple of forest management. Whether intentionally set or started by lightning strikes, fire regenerates forests, renews the soil and basically resets the clock. But in more recent times, the number of prescribed burns has greatly decreased because of numerous reasons, such as air-quality issues caused by smoke. When highways, schools and hospitals are built near or even within forests, this limits fire usage.”

Because of these limitations, higher-than-normal buildups of undesirable fuel loads, such as invasive undergrowth, brush and ground litter, create conditions that, when combined with drought, low humidity and wind, can result in dire consequences. A fire that would normally flow through a forest doing relatively little harm to the larger trees instead burns so hot that it annihilates everything in its path.

Wildfires play a beneficial role in forests by thinning trees, burning dead or decaying matter and returning nutrients to the soil.
Image Credit: S.C. Forestry Commission

“They burn too hot, they burn too fast, they burn uncontrollably, especially in hilly and mountainous areas,” said Phinney, who has been involved in land management and environmental regulations for close to 20 years. “They say that fire runs up a hill and walks down a hill. Fire basically runs up hills because it super-heats the vegetation above where it’s burning. This can cause incredible damage.”

In the summer and fall of 2016, conditions became ripe for the development of wildfires. From July through November, there have been more than 600 fires in South Carolina, with 210 new fires in November alone, according to the S.C. Forestry Commission. In comparison, there were only five fires statewide in November 2015. Even worse, South Carolina is not out of the woods yet, despite the recent rains. The most dangerous times are in the winter and early spring when nothing is green. With a landscape increasingly fragmented by human development, the physical and economic harm these fires can cause to people and their communities is worsening by the day.

“People move into areas where fires have always been. But they don’t prepare for them and, in many cases, aren’t even aware of how dangerous they can be,” said Carolyn Dawson, an Extension forestry agent based in the Upstate. “Then they’re shocked when a wildfire comes through and destroys their homes. We need to teach homeowners how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourage neighbors to work together and take action now to prevent losses in the future. There are things residents can do, such as reducing wildland fuels and structure ignitability, to protect their homes during a wildfire. Homes that don’t ignite don’t burn.”

Timberland that is properly managed with selective harvesting, periodic thinning, prescribed burnings and various other mechanical and chemical methods is more resistant to wildfire damage than untended forests because there is less fuel on the ground and the trees are spaced farther apart. Untended forests, meanwhile, tend to be more at risk for wildfires and can burn like pools of gasoline struck by a match. Therefore, when prolonged droughts occur, thousands of woodland acres can be destroyed by just the tiniest of sparks.

“If it’s a hot fire, you can end up with a bunch of dead snags where a decades-old hardwood forest once stood,” said Jeff Fellers, an Extension area forestry agent based in Union. “And it will take 60 or more years for these hardwood forests to look similar to what they once were. But not all is doom and gloom. There’s nothing wrong with an old-growth forest reverting back to an early successional forest. You’ll get a lot of herbaceous plants and other species sprouting back that will lure new forms of wildlife, including endangered animals and beneficial insects.”

After the smoke clears from this year’s deluge of wildfires, some of the views from the Appalachians’ famous overlooks could have a different feel. Valleys once boasting an unbroken canopy might now have patches of dead trees and open land. But this doesn’t have to mean that the view has been ruined. In some ways, it can be even more appealing.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said Stephen Pohlman, an Extension area forestry agent based in Edgefield. “People might look down from an overlook and say, ‘Oh, how ugly is this?’ But if they take the time to really study it, they’ll be able to see wildlife such as deer and turkey. Wildlife which were once hidden by the thick understory are now foraging on the new tender plants that have grown back from the seed bank. A lot of this is just nature’s way of maintaining the health and balance of our forests over long periods of time. Granted, controlled burns accomplish these objectives in a much safer way, but ultimately it is wildfires that have helped shape the South’s fire-dependent ecosystems.”

END