From Ridgecrest fire, new life begins
ther Nature is one tough lady. For proof, look no further than the fire-blackened mountainsides above Ridgecrest.
Motorists on Interstate 40 may view the charred woods above the Baptist Conference Center as an ugly reminder of the raging wildfire that whipped across 740 acres at the beginning of April, destroying one mobile home and damaging five others. The blaze left a large black scar across what was a once-verdant landscape of pitch and table mountain pines, rhododendron, mountain laurel and hardwoods.
But first glances can be deceiving. On a recent Friday, the North Carolina Forest Service’s District 1 Forester Greg Smith, Buncombe County Ranger Rob Townley and Smoke Chaser E. C. Winslow joined me to see, up close, what one of the largest wildfires in Buncombe County in decades left behind.
As we hiked up Rattlesnake Trail from Ridgecrest, with a burned smell still lingering in the air, we encountered new life everywhere, springing up from the ashes. Townley pointed to the clusters of bright new leaves sprouting from the base of charred and twisted rhododendron and mountain laurel on the steep slopes. From the blackened, seemingly lifeless bark of the pitch pine trees, clusters of fresh green needles are singing promise of renewal. Here and there along the trail, bright yellow wildflowers are dancing across the forest’s ashen graveyard.
With the dense canopy of laurel and rhododendron burned away, sunlight was streaming down to the forest floor, fueling a menagerie of leafy plants, including grasses, ferns, huckleberri
es and blueberries, offering up a varied buffet for wildlife that wasn’t available before.
“It (the fire) has upped the wildlife value tremendously,” Townley said. New hardwoods are sprouting up as well, including black gum, chestnut oak, sourwood, scarlet oak, sassafras, maple, chestnut and pitch pine, and Mother Nature is doing the job all by herself. In fact, Townley noted that table mountain and pitch pines depend on fire to release the seeds from their cones to regenerate themselves. “It’s a constantly moving shell game,” he said. “What’s detrimental for one species may be beneficial for another.”
Unlike wildfires that have stripped dry, rocky ground bare in many Western states, leading to serious erosion and mudslides, the Ridgecrest fire has left scarcely any erosion in its wake. Demonstrating why, Smith dug his fingers into the spongy forest floor. He pulled up a dense mesh of tiny roots that covers the earth to a depth of 6 inches and more, explaining that the mat traps moisture and holds the soil in place.
In addition, Smith said, after the fire was out, crews built numerous “water bars” - earthen berms across the fire lines - that divert rainwater runoff into the woods and prevent the fire breaks from turning into knee-deep gullies. Forest Service workers also seeded sensitive areas, he said, to prevent further washing.
“That’s what we do as firefighters,” Smith said. “We try to make sure that whatever disturbance we cause during the suppression activities, we go back and mitigate it.” So, how long will it take for the damaged woods to recover?
“In eight to 10 years, it won’t be unnoticeable,” Smith said, “but it will start to have more of a blending with the other forest types surrounding it. It’s going to be a stand of the same species that were here before … a mixed hardwood stand with a pine component in it.”
“So Mother Nature is very resilient?” I asked. “Oh yes, exactly,” Smith replied, “very resilient.”