Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

As officials from the National Forest Service gathered at the top of Wayah Bald last Wednesday to celebrate the completion of a new roof on the Wayah Bald Fire Tower, which was lost in 2016 during wildfires, a prescribed burn was visible in the mountains near Standing Indian in Macon County. 

As winter comes to an end and Spring hits the mountains, the Nantahala National Forest Service begins work to keep the new growth safe to prevent the likelihood and frequency of forest fires. One of the most effective tools the Forest Service has to achieve this, is the prescribed burn program. 

“Due to aggressive wildfire suppression and ceasing of anthropological burning over the last 50 to 100 years, these fire adapted ecological zones have missed one or more fire return intervals and are departing from their natural species composition and condition,” said Brian Browning, District Fire Management Officer for the Nantahala National Forest. “In the absence of fire disturbance, the vegetation of the ecological zones in the project areas is generally increasing in density and canopy cover. Understory and midstory vegetation is more abundant and shifting toward more shade tolerant species such as rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Regeneration of fire adapted species such as oak (Quercus spp.), hickory (Carya spp.), and shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is decreasing. Grasses, forbs, and soft mast species are also becoming more limited. The desired condition of this project area is to promote the fire adapted ecosystems in terms of species, condition, and function.”

The Nantahala Ranger District will burn on average 5-7 separate burns a year for 4-5,000 acres.  Burns are conducted on a three to seven year rotation.The prescribed burn on Pine Mountain that could be seen from Wayah Tower last Wednesday marked the third time in just over 15 years that area of forest experienced a prescribed burn.

“The Pine Mountain unit is 704 acres, the Nantahala River and Park Creek are utilized as containment lines along with a short section of handline,” said Browning. “The purpose and need for this project include reducing fuel accumulation to better protect national forest and adjacent ownerships from fire, reducing undesirable shade tolerant species such as mountain laurel, red maple, and white pine in areas susceptible to pine beetle infestation to allow for regeneration of desirable species; establishing burn units in a mosaic pattern to mimic natural fire behavior; and improving wildlife habitat by increasing the availability and quality of nutritious forage for grazing and browsing animals such as deer, turkey, and bear.”

Browning said the prescribed burn program is essential in Forest Service management. 

Because of the length of the Spring season, as well as the rain that is forecasted, Spring provides the Forest Service with the most opportunity to conduct prescribed burns. 

Extensive measures are taken during prescribed burns to keep the burns contained and safe. 

“Containment lines must be established around the burn area,” said Browning. “Natural features are preferred when they are available (roads, water bodies, rock outcroppings), otherwise constructed containment lines are utilized such as hand constructed lines or dozer constructed lines. Burns are only conducted when predicted weather will allow for safe completion of the burn operation. This includes ensuring that smoke will not stay in the area for a long period of time but will disperse and thin out so smoke concentrations are not harmful to the public. If smoke will impact a road smoke signs are posted to warn motorists.”

Every unit goes through a tremendous amount of planning before the burn is conducted to provide the highest amount of safety for the workers and public as possible. If the prescribed burn program was not in effect, Browning said several problems would arise. 

“Not burning allows a buildup of fuel which allows wildfires to burn with more intensity and make them harder to control,” said Browning. “Without fire being on the landscape it allows species to encroach into areas they don’t belong, which in turn creates competition for species that thrive with fire on the landscape and will eventually be outcompeted.”

According to Browning, there are prescribed burns tentatively planned for Wolf Knob in the Cowee area and Bull Penn in the Chattanooga River area this Spring.