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Stories in North Carolina

The Role of Fire in Forests

North Carolina is home to a wide variety of plants and animals that need fire to thrive.

From the mountains to the coast, The Nature Conservancy is restoring fire-dependent forests by burning.

Fire in the Sandhills

Fire is integral to keeping the longleaf pine system healthy. Historically, longleaf pines were the dominant tree in the southeastern United States coastal plain before European settlement, but logging in the nineteenth century reduced those populations significantly. The longleaf pine made North Carolina’s naval stores industry possible: Trees provided the tar, pitch, wood and turpentine necessary to construct ships, and North Carolina subsequently became known as the Tar Heel State.

Public service campaigns against wildfires in the twentieth century changed attitudes with real consequences to natural systems.  Since then, Smokey Bear’s message has changed to distinguish intentional or accidental wildfires from controlled burns that play a critical role forest ecology.

TNC is now working to restore Sandhills forests using controlled burns. Burning prevents shrubby species from overgrowing and shading out the understory, making light available to wiregrass, wildflowers and juvenile longleaf trees. In coastal longleaf stands, these conditions, along with wet, low-nutrient soils, allow rare carnivorous plants, such as the iconic Venus flytrap, to thrive.

pine barrens tree frog
Pine Barrens Tree Frog The pine barrens tree frog needs fire to thrive © Nathan Howell

Longleaf pine trees are home to countless species of wildlife. The pine barrens tree frog is considered significantly rare in North Carolina. They breed in Carolina Bays, streamhead pocosins and Sandhill seeps—all wetland habitats that can be managed with fire. Burning controls the density of shrubs and prevents hardwood encroachment on their breeding habitat. The pine barrens tree frog has been spotted at TNC’s Calloway Forest Preserve.  The preserve is home to other rare species such as the the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. We are also working to restore habitat for an extremely rare butterfly, the Saint Francis’ satyr, found only in the North Carolina Sandhills.

st francis satyr butterfly
Saint Francis' Satyr TNC is working to restore Saint Francis' satyr butterfly populations by burning © Dave Pavlik

Fire in the Mountains

There is evidence that fire has played a role in the ecology of the Southern Blue Ridge for 11,000 years. Carbon dating of charcoal shows that fire was relatively frequent. 

Forests likely looked different than they do today, with large open spaces. Without regular fire, shade-tolerant species can overtake the forest and prevent the growth of species like oak and hickory that require more sun. This is disastrous for wildlife that rely on acorns from oak trees for food. Species like the table mountain pine, found nowhere else in the world but the Appalachian Mountains, cannot germinate without fire. Its cones remain closed and covered with wax and retain their seeds until heated.

In the absence of fire, plants like rhododendron, mountain laurel and red maple dominate because they grow well in shaded conditions. As a result, open pine and oak woodlands, young forest and grassy-shrubby fields are now rare, and the wildlife that depend on them such as the northern bobwhite and northern pinesnake are all but gone from the mountains. Research also suggests that pollinator decline can be partially attributed to fire prevention and reduced floral diversity. 

At TNC’s Bluff Mountain Preserve, fire benefits many plants and animals. By burning, we have maintained a high-elevation red oak forest—one of four Southern Blue Ridge natural community types that needs fire to remain healthy and for oaks to regenerate.  Fire knocks back rhododendron and mountain laurel and favors flower species like Indian paintbrush, firepink and blazing star. 

Bluff Mountain Preserve The results of a recent controlled burn at TNC's Bluff Mountain Preserve in North Carolina.

TNC is working with partners to restore forest habitats for the animals that depend on them. We share burn crews with other conservation nonprofits, government agencies and universities, and we aid in the hiring, recruitment and training of firefighters to increase capacity. Our expert staff is also identifying areas that need burning the most and providing that information to other organizations, ensuring that resources are used strategically.

In the Southern Blue Ridge, we are working with partners through the Fire Learning Network. Since 2000, we have helped partners burn over 40,000 acres in the mountains.