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Table Rock is burning, and it's about time

Crews from The Nature Conservancy SC, the state Forestry Commission, and the U.S. Forest Service turn a clear, blue day smoky in the Upstate. Small prescribed burns keep fire from immolating thousands of acres of flora and fauna, and nobody does these preemptive fires more than the Southeast.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Crews from The Nature Conservancy SC, the state Forestry Commission, and the U.S. Forest Service turn a clear, blue day smoky in the Upstate. Small prescribed burns keep fire from immolating thousands of acres of flora and fauna, and nobody does these preemptive fires more than the Southeast.

Helen Mohr works for the U.S. Forest Service. She also grew up almost literally in the shadow of Table Rock Mountain. So when she says that burning the land is a deep-rooted thing here in a way that it isn’t elsewhere, you might want to listen.

“A lot of that is due to how we were culturally brought up here in the South,” Mohr says. “How we burned grandma and grandpa’s farm, and how all the neighbors came out and it was a group effort, and how we all sat down and broke bread and had a meal after the day was over and the burn was successful.”

Turns out that the Southeast burns more acres on purpose than anywhere else in the country, she says – and this could explain why large-scale wildfires are not so common in South Carolina.

Mohr explains this as a horror film-level of smoke rolls its way up the footpaths intersecting at a low-altitude spot on Table Rock on a stunningly blue April day. Around us, techs from the South Carolina Forestry Commission and The Nature Conservancy SC purposely set the dried leaves and pine needles ablaze.

In this 35-acre zone, fire techs are eliminating the fuel that could feed a catastrophe. With so much leaf litter on the ground, a spark in just the right conditions could get out of control in a hurry, so these prescribed fires are needed, controlled, scrupulously attended (there are a lot of fire techs and a lot of water on hand in case of surprises), and heavily dependent on the weather.

The last is why it’s taken so long, despite a fire season that’s seen hundreds of recorded wildfires in South Carolina since November, to get this particular burn at Table Rock State Park to happen. There was talk of my dropping by to witness a prescribed burn as early as February, but every week was either too wet, too windy, or too both until a nice, calm, low-humidity Monday opened up.

“We have to have very precise weather conditions,” Mohr says. “We have to have highly trained staff who have experience putting fire on the ground in a controlled manner. That’s hard for people to understand sometimes – like, how do you control a fire?”

And while it might seem counterintuitive to set a fire to preempt another fire, Mohr says there are plant species that count on the woods burning in order to survive.

“Table mountain pine is one,” Mohr says. “It has a serotinous cone, which means it needs fire for that cone to open and fire to prepare the seedbed on the forest floor for that tree to germinate. Without fire, this tree is in decline.”

As the smoke gets thicker (and thicker), at least two eyes start to burn too. All the other eyes, belonging to veterans of mountain fires, don’t so much as tear up. No one is masked against the smoke and no one (else) coughs. We’re all just walking around, following the crackling hiss of hot safety. Mohr swears it’s just a matter of getting used to it.

It’s all a rather well-choreographed dance up here, where a whirring motor keeps a hose line of water at the ready and where leaf blowers – really – wait to help blow errant embers back into the fire before they get a chance to cause any bigger troubles.

Dances like this don’t just happen, says Michael Trotter, park manager at Table Rock State Park. They require help from agencies that are equipped to handle a burn like this.

“We lack a lot of the technical and equipment needs to get prescribed fire on the ground,” Trotter says, down at the edge of the lake, a few hundred yards away from the cloudy smoke above. “Without the partnership and the efforts of the Forestry Commission and the Forest Service, we wouldn’t be able to engage in these resource management activities that our public lands need."

Partnerships like these, which also include the Nature Conservancy and local fire departments, are part of the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network. This network is one of several similar consortiums of fire professionals and conservationist agencies aiming to keep healthy fire happening and destructive fire quiet. The Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network keeps an eye on the western Carolinas, northeastern Georgia, and southeastern Tennessee.

These choreographed prescribed burns were set to begin in 2016 – the year South Carolina’s largest recorded mountain fire burned 10,000 acres at Pinnacle Mountain.

“We actually had a Firewise training session set up [for] the very week that the Pinnacle fire happened,” Trotter says. “We joke and say we were overachieves, we just went ahead and burned the whole thing.”

Though a huge fire for South Carolina, Pinnacle didn’t take a single human life, nor a single structure. But Totter says he has no plans to overachieve again, and especially none to count on being so lucky about lives and buildings next time.

But as destructive as Pinnacle was to the forest, it ultimately ended up doing something else that prescribed fires do – it led to rebirth.

“I spent a year after the Pinnacle Mountain fire walking the Carrick Creek Trail, like, once a week,” Mohr says. “I would take a series of photos, and I have a whole album of wildflowers that came up as a result of that wildfire.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.