Two years ago, a large wildfire scorched more than 10,000 acres across the upper reaches of Table Rock State Park, bringing in firefighters from across the country and blanketing downtown Greenville with smoky skies. Now, local agencies are preparing for the impending wildfire season, which begins in January, by lighting their own fires.
From Oct. 29 to Nov. 9, The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina, an environmental nonprofit, and various partner agencies, including the South Carolina Forestry Commission and South Carolina State Parks, hosted an intensive training program in Pickens County to help more than 50 fire specialists from around the world learn how to combat wildfires through the use of prescribed burns.
The program, known as the Southern Blue Ridge Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, was the first of its kind to be held in the Appalachian region, according to Kristen Austin, Upstate conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina.
Participants spent two days in a classroom setting at the Table Rock Wesleyan Camp and Retreat Center, where they learned about the effects a prescribed burn will have on the land and how the burns benefit forest restoration, as well as learning safety techniques to help successfully contain the burn. They were then divided into teams and sent out to several counties across the Upstate and Western North Carolina to conduct prescribed, or controlled, burns.
“The purpose of the Southern Blue Ridge Prescribed Fire Training Exchange is to train wildland fire professionals from around the world to build skills and gain qualifications using controlled burning,” Austin said. “The use of controlled burning will reduce fuels to lessen impacts of future wildfires for public safety, enhance wildlife habitat, and restore native plants.”
Prescribed burning is the intentional application of fire under planned weather and fuel conditions to achieve specific forest- and land-management objectives, according to a news release, which notes that it’s an ancient practice notably used by Native Americans for crop management, insect and pest control, and hunting-habitat improvement.
The practice of prescribed burning continues today under the close watch of land managers who understand the appropriate conditions and carefully apply the fires as an important tool to reduce wildfires, enhance wildlife habitat, and keep the hundreds of millions of acres of forested land in the South healthy and productive, the release said.
If properly executed, prescribed burning can provide numerous ecological, social, and economic benefits, according to the release. For instance, it can reduce the fuel load of understory trees, shrubs, vines, leaves, and pine needles to limit the potential hazard of wildfire. Prescribed burns can also remove unwanted brush and thick undergrowth, providing room for natural plant species and making travel and feeding easier for certain wildlife species.
An increasing number of agencies throughout the Southeast are beginning to implement prescribed burns as part of their land-management strategies in response to the intense wildfire seasons the region has encountered in recent years, Austin said.
“The Pinnacle Mountain fire really opened our eyes to the fact that we are susceptible to large-scale wildfires here in the Southern Appalachians,” she said. “This training is a direct response to that fire and part of our effort to bring fire back to the mountains.”
Austin added that programs like the Southern Blue Ridge Prescribed Fire Training Exchange are important because they not only provide vital training to firefighters but also support interagency cooperation, fostering relationships and understanding among the officials who participate.
The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina, along with its partner agencies, plans to host the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange every two years, according to Austin.
For more information about the program, visit http://nature.ly/trainingexercises.