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Seeing the green beneath blackened trees

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A week after wildfires in McClellanville and Little River charred thousands of acres, threatened homes and closed parts of Highway 17, the dangers of fire are on the minds of many people.

Images of smoke rising from treetops and flames blackening the landscape generate alarm and fear, but environmentally speaking, fire isn’t a bad thing for Southeastern forests, said George Chastain, executive director of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, owner of 17,500 acres at Hobcaw Barony.

“Our pine forests in the Southeast are dependent on fire,” he explained. “Fire is a normal part of the system and a lot of species are dependent on it.”

As a result, Hobcaw uses prescribed burning, also known as controlled burns, as part of its land management.

Prescribed burning mimics fires that occur naturally in pine forests. It clears out the understory, allowing for new, nutrient-rich growth and making the environment more suitable for a range of species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species. “It likes a very open, park-like pine forest,” Chastain said.

The gopher tortoise, fox squirrel and a number of invertebrates, including butterflies, are also on the list of creatures dependent on fire for their survival, said Amy Weinmeister, education coordinator for the University of South Carolina’s Environmental Learning Center.

“Most people are afraid of any fire, but we have so many large tracts that are managed beautifully with controlled burning,” she said. “They don’t understand the difference.”

In addition to its environmental benefits, the clearing out of the forest understory through controlled burning also reduces the chance of a damaging wildfire that could endanger homes and lives.

“You’re reducing the fuel load,” Chastain said. “You can’t prevent every wildfire, but by burning to reduce the amount of material available, you have less intense burning” if a wildfire occurs.

“Forests will burn at some point, and it’s much better to do it under controlled conditions,” he said.

Demonstration sites at Hobcaw have been used in the past to help the public get a better understanding of what controlled burning accomplishes.

“We’re trying to get that cranked up again,” Chastain said.

Homeowners in communities that border large, forested tracts are certainly better off if controlled burning is practiced on the land, said Bill Wiley, field coordinator for the state’s Firewise Communities program.

Firewise is a multi-agency effort geared toward helping homeowners, community leaders, planners and developers make preparations to reduce the risk of damage by wildfire. Wiley is currently working with DeBordieu as it tries to get certified as a Firewise Community, and will work with Prince George in the future.

“Unfortunately, this is our heavy fire season and that has kept us real busy,” Wiley said. “That has kind of held us back on doing other work with the communities.”

Wiley helps homeowners assess fire risk on their property and take simple steps to mitigate those risks. For example, homeowners are advised to remove pine straw from flower beds around their home and replace it with pine bark nuggets, shredded hardwood or crushed brick.

“You can still use pine straw, but you might want to use it farther out, with flower beds 15, 20 or 30 feet away,” he said.

Community-wide efforts, such as clean-up days, are also encouraged. A community in Horry County had a “chipping day” last year, in which all the residents cleaned underbrush from their properties and the property owners association hired a contractor to come in and chip the material.

Wiley also works with adjacent landowners to create firebreaks between residential and forested properties.

Hobcaw already has firebreaks set up between its property and DeBordieu, which borders Hobcaw to the North.

“We keep a wide open boundary between us and the development there,” Chastain said. “Also, when we do a prescribed burn, we try to notify security and the people at DeBordieu, and hopefully they’ll be helping us look out for fire when we’re not burning.”

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