By Jake Flannick | Photos by Clint Calhoun
When a persistent wildfire raged across several thousand acres of forestland in the Hickory Nut Gorge late last year, many awestruck observers gazed at the burning mountainside with a sense of dismay. Trees were scorched, animals displaced, a nearby village deserted.
In the aftermath of the weeks-long inferno, foresters and other environmental officials are working not only to assess the damage, but also to address any lingering questions or concerns about the health of the forest and its inhabitants. The long-term effects of the disaster, they say, will prove fruitful under proper management, laying the groundwork for more ecologically rich habitats.
“It was extremely beneficial,” says Clint Calhoun, a longtime naturalist and the environmental management officer for Lake Lure. “We’ve gone a long time without fire.”
About an hour’s drive southeast of Asheville, the tiny town sits near where the fire started, on a large granite outcropping in Chimney Rock State Park that is known as Party Rock. Seeking to raise awareness about the effects of the wildfire, Calhoun and other experts in recent months have taken part in a series of educational forums arranged by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), which helped create Chimney Rock State Park and which oversees about 1,200 acres that were affected by the fire.
The idea is “to help the public understand that fire is not the enemy,” says David Lee, the conservancy’s natural resources manager.
On the ground, the Hendersonville-based conservancy is preparing to create a citizen science program for all ages to help gather data in affected areas, and it is compiling an inventory of invasive species that it intends to uproot with the help of state park officials. In addition, it is inspecting containment lines, seeking to address any erosion and to spread seeds of native plants.
“CMLC’s staff is working hard to ensure that we not only achieve the best ecological outcome from the fire, but that we engage all ages of the community to learn from, and better understand our local environment,” says CMLC executive director Kieran Roe.
In many ways, wildfires help restore ecological balance to an environment, creating biological diversity by doing away with unhealthy or dead vegetation and opening up the forest floor to more sunlight. As a result, wildlife that struggle to survive beneath leafy canopies, or overstories, can end up re-emerging.
Among the tree species that can withstand fires are oaks and hickories, which have long shaped the landscape here. But because of limited fires over the past century or so—including no controlled burns in recent memory—those trees were overrun by others that are less fire resistant, like maples and poplars.
“It’s like a giant reset button,” Calhoun says, adding that some species flourish in disturbed environments.
The Party Rock fire largely burned on the surface, but its reach was extensive, covering more than 7,000 acres of both public and private land and leading to the evacuation of the village of Chimney Rock. While the visitor center at the park and hiking trails have since reopened, the fire’s cause was still being investigated by the NC Forest Service and local law enforcement officials as of early last month.
Among the “unwanted consequences” Calhoun and others expect the arrival of invasive species, which thrive amid such disturbances and which tend to outcompete native plants. “Invasive species are going to impact every biological community we have out there,” Calhoun says. And that, he adds, poses a “huge, huge management problem in the wake of this fire.”
But while it’s difficult to tell how quickly the affected areas will recover, some species could spring to life immediately. “Things tend to grow back here pretty quickly,” he says. Indeed, at least one thing is certain in coming years: “The wildflowers are going to be amazing.”
To learn more about the positive outcomes of wildfires, visit nps.gov/fire. For more about the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, see carolinamountain.org. To learn more about Chimney Rock State Park, visit chimneyrockpark.com.