The Flames of Life

The Flames of Life

Table Mountain Pine, Pinus pungens

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

Finally, we are seeing rain today as we write this article for the November issue. Much needed rain! The first part of October has been dry and unseasonably warm. Fall is wildfire season here, and conditions have been dry enough to elicit warnings from fire officials to take extra precautions. Those of us who lived here in November, 2016, recall the “Party Rock” fire that burned for days near Lake Lure and Chimney Rock and sent billows of acrid smoke to the west, making some days quite uncomfortable to be outdoors. Closer to the fires, evacuations were mandated and some roads were closed. Peaking at just over 7,000 acres, the Party Rock fire required the assistance of more than 170 fire departments from around the state. To the west in Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a horrific wildfire on November 28, 2016, burned much of the city, took 14 human lives and caused more than $500 million in damages.

Regular fires have been a part of our landscape for thousands of years. For the past 100 years, fire suppression has been the rule of the day. Obviously a necessity where human lives and structures are concerned, fire suppression also has resulted in changes in the natural environment. Leaves, sticks and dead trees fall to the forest floor and accumulate instead of being regularly burned and returned to the soil. As more material accumulates, the danger of wildfire increases. For this reason, scientists and land managers work together to organize “controlled burns” in some natural areas. Conditions must be perfect for burning some of this extra material from the forest floor without allowing the purposeful fire to escape their control. Burn managers hope for some wind to carry the smoke away, but not so much as to spread the fire out of bounds, as well as conditions dry enough to burn without being so dry that the fire burns too hot. The hope is not only to prevent severe wildfires in the future in these areas but also to encourage plant communities (and associated wildlife) that thrive in areas that are sporadically burned.

Fire biology is an extremely complex science. There are many questions to ask and many variables to study. What trees were killed? What species will return first? Are some species gone from the severely burned landscapes for good?

One of the most fascinating trees found only here in the southern and central Appalachians is the Table Mountain Pine. This gnarled and stunted-looking tree is found on rocky outcrops with shallow soil. Its distinctive cones remain on the tree for many years. The cones are armed with alarmingly sharp and long prickles, but that is not their only distinction. The cone of the Table Mountain Pine actually requires a good, hot fire to release its precious store of seeds. Heat from a fire melts the resin that glues the cones closed. The seeds are then released into an environment that has been burned clean of vegetation, giving it a headstart before competition arrives. Biologists refer to this as “serotiny,” when seed release is tied to an environmental trigger such as fire. This is just one of the many fascinating tools in Mother Nature’s toolbox!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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