PILOT MOUNTAIN — Passersby at Pilot Mountain State Park shouldn’t necessarily be alarmed if they see fire on the mountain at times within the next 90 days.
Chances are, any smoke and flames visible will only be the result of prescribed burns at the park, at least two of which are planned by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation to achieve forest-management objectives.
One such burn will be conducted on 65 acres near the park’s family campground sometime in September, and will require closing the Grindstone Trail during the fire.
Another prescribed burn will occur on 55 acres at the park’s north river section, likely in mid-November. No trails will be affected or closed during that event.
Both prescribed burn units are adjacent to previously burned areas and are contained within hard fire lines consisting of roads or cleared firebreaks.
The specific dates of the prescribed burns will depend on local weather conditions, according to Pilot Mountain State Park Superintendent Matt Windsor, who did not know Tuesday when this month’s event might occur.
Windsor explained that one of the factors affecting the process is the influence of transport winds on the smoke produced, which means the controlled fire is undertaken only when those winds are of a certain velocity. When the air is stagnant, as it has been recently, the smoke could obscure U.S. 52, which runs alongside the park.
On the selected days, the burns will begin in the late morning and likely end by mid-afternoon. Signs alerting motorists of each burn event will be posted on U.S. 52.
This month’s burn will occur before the leaves drop. Having the trees still leafed out for it will keep the fire behavior and flame heights to a lower level, and help thin out less-desirable smaller trees since they have not yet gone dormant for the year.
While it might seem strange to some that one of the goals of a prescribed fire is to reduce the number of trees per acre, the remaining trees are stronger healthier and have reduced competition for resources, park personnel say.
Maps of the burn units and other information can be found on the park’s Tumblr page at http://pilotmountainstatepark.tumblr.com/rss.
Although a prescribed burn got out of control and scorched more than 800 acres at Pilot Mountain State Park in November 2012, forestry officials consider the controlled fires to be important tools overall.
A prescribed burn is when a low-intensity fire applied under strictly defined weather conditions is used to achieve forest-management objectives in ecosystems that evolved with recurring fire and are dependent on controlled blazes for maintenance.
Prescribed burns can be used to prepare sites for replanting, reduce the risk of wildfires, control insects and diseases and increase the productivity of a forest, officials say. The controlled burns are used as a resource-management tool in many locations by the state parks system.
When another low-intensity controlled burn was announced at Pilot Mountain State Park in February, a ranger there, Nick Bowman, said a system was in place to prevent a recurrence of problems. This involved plans for the burn to be carried out only under strictly defined parameters of a fire-management plan, with a specific staff size laid out, in order to minimize smoke and assure the flames were controlled.
So far in 2015, about 370 acres at Pilot Mountain State Park have undergone prescribed burns to restore wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire risk, according to information from the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.
The most recent burn occurred on Aug. 3, involving an estimated 30 acres.
Several tree species in the park, such as pitch pine, table mountain pine and bear oak, are highly fire-adapted, regionally uncommon and need a frequent fire regime to survive and reproduce, officials say.
Park staff members also have assisted in a research project with Salem College on the park’s fire history by studying fire scars preserved in tree rings. Fires burned on Pilot Mountain about every five years until the 1940s, when decades of fire suppression began.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693.