Fire

Prescribed Burn
FIRE! That word alone elicits different responses in every person, from pyromaniacs to pyrophobics.  Fire is a tool that nature has used for centuries to maintain some ecological systems.  At the Watson Preserve, fire is used to maintain two such communities out of five communities or associations present. These communities are the longleaf pine uplands and the pine savannah wetlands.  A brief description of each of the five communities are given below, starting from the driest to the wettest.  On the preserve map on the MAP page, these five communities are shown by the numbers.
Arid sandylands (2 on the MAP) consist of deep sands and are dry much of the year because even when it rains the water soaks in and drains away rapidly.  Vegetation is often sparse in these areas.
Longleaf pine uplands (1 on the MAP)  are ridge top communities containing predominantly the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and numerous grasses.  Fire keeps this community in tact for long periods of time.  Without fire, understory trees would soon grow and push out the grasses and associated forbs.  In the long term, as the longleaf pines died out, hardwood trees would take over.
Mesic slope forests (3 on the MAP)  are sides of hills that contain hardwood and pine trees along with understory trees and shrubs.  They are wet when it rains and slowly dry out due to run off.  Leaf litter, nature’s mulch, keeps some of the moisture in place for a longer time.
Pine savannah wetlands (5 on the MAP) occupy virtually flat areas where water cannot escape easily through drainage either as run off or as seepage through the ground.  Without fire these wetlands will become overrun by shrubs and small trees to become thickets.
Thickets (4 on the MAP) occur where water collects and fire is suppressed by the nearly constantly wet conditions.  The thicket may be flat or be at the bottom of converging slopes.  These areas are often difficult to walk through.
Each association contains its own wonderful flora.

Part of the mission of our organization is to restore to  its original state the Longleaf Pine-Blue Stem Range that existed on the site before man's disturbance.  Due to the practice of fire suppression during most of the twentieth century, nature was not allowed to maintain the balance necessary in this sub-climate community.  Until it can be restored to the point that nature is back in control, it must be managed. The most effective management tool is prescribed burning.
Summer burns are used for commercial timber production, while winter burns maintain a balance of the ecosystem.  We use winter burns at the Watson Preserve. Preparation begins in mid-December because of the holidays. The burn begins at the first window of opportunity after January 1st. Since wind direction and speed as well as humidity levels are critical factors for a successful burn, this window is often very narrow.  Getting enough help on short notice is always a challenge. Volunteers are needed.
Burning after early to mid February is undesirable because it would eliminate many annuals that are just beginning to sprout.  One annual  in particular is the Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria). Virginia snakeroot is the brood plant of the black pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Papilio philenor). If plants such as these are eliminated here, so is the associated butterfly and other dependent lifeforms and species. If this should happen, than this segment of restoration would end and the chain of lose would continue.  

The procedure for our prescribed burning is site specific to this location and was developed over a long period.   First, fire breaks are prepared to separate areas for burning and areas for non-burning. Slope Forest community adjacent to Longleaf Pine Uplands are not fire tolerant and must be protected by these fire breaks. Excess fuel is raked to the pyric side of each break. During the actual burning, these breaks are monitored full time.  When conditions are right, fire is started at the outside of small areas and allowed to burn toward the middle and burn itself out.  Burning is conducted on only as many areas at one time as there are people to properly contain the fire to the burn area.

   
PRESCRIBED BURN
BEFORE
DURING
AFTER