Hiking along a trail at the base of Pinnacle Mountain, biologist Joe Lemeris points at a sea of mountain laurels. Their green leaves will soon transform from a cluster of dark pink buds to a white flower as they blossom this spring, offering a stark contrast to the charred remains of oak and hickory trees that lie nearby.
Last year, a raging wildfire scorched the upper reaches of Table Rock State Park. The fire started at the base of Pinnacle Mountain in November as a campfire and continued to grow, fueled by historic drought conditions. The blaze, which was contained in December, cost more than $5 million and burned 10,263 acres.
Today, evidence of the wildfire is scarce.
The forest floor, once scorched and barren, is now covered in leaves that provide erosion control and nutrients, according to Lemeris, a natural resource management biologist for the state Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism.
“People forget that wildfire is natural. It’s nature’s way of clearing out the old undergrowth to make room for the new,” said Lemeris. “The fire is already providing countless ecological benefits for the mountain.”
For instance, the tree canopy is opening up and allowing more sunlight in the mountain’s understory, spawning grasses and wildflowers. And that same vegetation has created a prime research opportunity for Lemeris and other scientists throughout the state, who can now study the mountain’s forest as it recovers.
“The fire has pushed a lot of mountain laurels and rhododendrons up the mountain that are usually found alongside creeks. They’re definitely out of place,” said Lemeris. “It’s just one of many changes we’re going to be studying.”
Lemeris has partnered with researchers from Clemson University and other schools to establish photo monitoring stations throughout Table Rock State Park and across Pinnacle Mountain. They plan to record changes to the mountain’s landscape over the next year and study footage from the cameras.
The new vegetation has already attracted a variety of birds usually found in the upper reaches of Pinnacle Mountain, where the trees were completely scorched, according to Poll Knowland, manager of Table Rock State Park.
For 19 years, Knowland and his rangers have tried, yet failed to spot the park’s population of ruffed grouse, a bird that’s found in the northwestern part of the state in elevations above 2,000 feet. But one of the elusive birds, Knowland said, recently emerged on a trail in front of him and flew away.
“Where he came from, I don’t have a clue,” he said. “But I can guarantee you — the bears are back, the deer are back, everything is back, and they’re thriving.”
The park’s hiking trails have since reopened, and it seems as if more people than usual are swarming to the park with their dogs and families, according to Knowland. “It’s good to see people coming out here,” he said. “I think most of our visitors are surprised to see the park doing so well after the fire.”
Surprisingly, the Pinnacle Mountain fire didn’t cause any deaths or damage homes, which were protected by controlled burns and other techniques to guard against the approaching flames. Knowland, for instance, helped residents clear flammable materials from the perimeter and clean the roofs and gutters of their homes.
For about three weeks, persistent drought and high winds fueled the Pinnacle Mountain fire, which closed the hiking trails at Table Rock State Park and sent a smoky haze over much of the Upstate that caused the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to issue several air quality alerts.
The blaze required nighttime flights to measure the fire’s hot spots with infrared technology, and the South Carolina National Guard used Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters to drop water on the fire from nearby Lake Oolenoy.
The state is now awaiting federal money to aid in the cost of the fire, which could take another year. The S.C. House recently approved a budget proviso that would appropriate $1.25 million for a federal match, according to Darryl Jones, the state Forestry Commission’s chief of forest protection.
Jones is currently working with state and federal agencies to prevent future fires. Their weapon of choice: Controlled burns, a practice that involves using fire to reduce understory brush that can go up in flames during drought.
But the state only burns half of the acreage it should burn each year to balance the ecosystem, said Kristen Austin, Southern Blue Ridge program director for the Nature Conservancy of South Carolina. “We need to bring fire back to the mountains in a controlled way to really bring the forest back into balance,” Austin said.
“We’re looking at an out-of-whack environment,” she added.
The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the Forestry Commission, and other agencies to form the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network, which aims to “develop, share, and apply the best available science to restore fire across a vast, diverse region.”
But the coalition faces many challenges, including the fact that 80 percent of the state’s forested land is privately owned. “We are concentrating our efforts on educating private landowners about the benefits of prescribed fire, and providing training through our Certified Prescribed Fire Manager course,” Jones said.
The coalition also plans to conduct controlled burns at state parks.
The Beautiful Places Alliance, for instance, was recently awarded $35,000 from the Duke Energy Foundation to help the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism conduct controlled burns at several state parks across the Upstate.
The burns will be conducted sometime this spring by state fire crews at Table Rock, Paris Mountain, Devils Fork, and Oconee state parks, according to Lemeris, who is going to oversee the operation alongside Jones.
“These parks have seen 75 years of fire suppression with years of accumulated combustible fuels,” said Duane Parrish, director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. “Controlled burns help us remain committed to the stewardship of our natural communities and the service we provide to park visitors.”
During the burns, Lemeris and other specialists plan to closely monitor wind, temperature, and humidity, and reschedule the burns if the conditions could enhance the fire or spread smoke to nearby cities. Before igniting the burns, crews plan to construct firebreaks that ensure the fire doesn’t leave the designated areas.
The burns should mimic natural wildfires, Lemeris said. That means the trails and roads in or around the state parks could be temporarily closed to the public. Any closures will be clearly posted for the public. However, because the scheduling of controlled burns is dependent on weather conditions, advance notice will only be provided to local fire and law enforcement officials.
Once the burns are completed, the affected areas will look barren. However, the areas should recover within a few days or weeks as nutrients from the dead trees and brush will act as fertilizer, according to Lemeris.