“Like rainforests need rain, our ‘fire forests’ need fire,” Nature Conservancy’s fire specialist Angie Carl says. Natural burnings once occurred through lightning strikes and also served as a tool used by Native Americans to provide food through berry and fruit production, as well as provided better travel access for hunting and gathering. While there are a lot of fires occurring in our area every year, hundreds are controlled burns.
“Without fire the understory of the forest becomes thick and alters the system completely,” Carl continues. “When fire is removed from the ecosystem, we lose important plants, such as the Venus flytrap, and animals of the Southern forest.”
The fires act as substitutes for their more natural ancestors, which light get to the forest floor. “[It allows] for a biodiverse understory, which provides food and habitat to many of the inhabitants of the pine savannas,” Carl notes.
The Nature Conservancy continues to educate New Hanover County residents about controlled burns in our region. To that end, The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Forest Service and City of Wilmington Parks and Recreation Department started Fire in the Pines Festival in 2010. It’s back this weekend, on October 13 at Halyburton Park.
“After the hurricane and being shut-in, this is a wonderful outdoor environmental festival,” organizer Francine DeCoursey says, “to get families together to learn more about our fragile coastal environment and have some much-needed fun with the entire family—for free.”
Fire in the Pines is a hands-on way of educating children and families. With roughly 50 interactive booths and countless activities, the festival features live animal exhibits (turtles, snakes, lizards, owls, hawks); carnivorous plants like the native Venus flytrap; live music from island-inspired classic rockers Da Howlies and Mike-El on wood flute; arts and crafts stations; and famed forest fire-prevention mascot Smokey the Bear will be there, too.
“We have professional face-painters, jugglers, live music, a raptor show,” Carl lists. “All is free. The only thing people have to pay for are the food trucks.”
WilmyWoodie Wood Fired Pizza Truck, Pepe’s Tacos, A&M Red Food Truck, Poor Piggy’s, Trolley Stop and Snowie of the Carolinas will serve the crowd throughout the day. Kids will get to work a real water pump and peanut sheller from The Full Belly Project. While little firefighters-in-training can put out a Styrofoam “fire” with Carolina Beach State Parks, kids also can dress the part with fire hats and coats at the US Cellular photo booth.
There are nature hikes for walkers of all levels, too, and guided hayride tours. Since Hurricane Florence hit, the hayrides, a popular pasttime of the festival, almost came to a halt. “But this year Poplar Grove is lending us their wagons, as ours were unavailable after the storm,” DeCoursey confirms.
Wagons and trees weren’t the only things to fall to the hurricane. Typically, Fire in the Pines Festival centers around an actual controlled burn demonstration. It’s usually lit by a celebrity guest or Wilmington’s Mayor Saffo, while Carl and company explain how they use weather, terrain and fuels (pine needles, grass, shrubs, et al) to conduct a safe burn. Unfortunately, due to a city-wide burn ban, this will be the second time in three years Fire on the Pines had to cancel.
“[The burn ban] is to prevent people from burning the debris in their yards,” Carl explains. “It puts a strain on the already strained emergency services.”
Nevertheless, just like fire is a natural process, hurricanes are as well. Local plant species have adapted to the occasional hurricane making landfall. In fact, longleaf pines have developed a very strong and lengthy tap root to help withstand damage. In fact, humans do more to disrupt the area’s natural ecosystems on a regular basis.
“The biggest impact to natural areas are human made infrastructures, such as roads, culverts and bridges,” Carl notes.
Festival attendees are encouraged to ride their bikes or hike to Halyburton via the cross-city trail. Drivers should park at 3147 S. 17th St. (corner of Independence and S. 17th streets), and take the free festival trolley to Halyburton. The rain date for this Saturday’s Fire in the Pines is October 27.
To learn more about the Fire in the Pines Festival, visit the event’s Facebook page or www.fireinthepines.org.