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Aside from destroying economically valuable timber, the massive wildfire in March, which originated in the SR-8 range aboard MCB Camp Lejeune, is providing new life to rare plants, such as the rough-leaf loosestrife, and endangered animal species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Photo by Sgt. Bryan A. Peterson

April wildfire means positive regrowth for MCB Camp Lejeune

21 Jun 2011 | Sgt. Bryan A. Peterson

A few months after the wildfire that scorched more than 10,000 acres of forest land in the Greater Sandy Run training area aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, the area is beginning to look green again.

Aside from destroying economically valuable timber, the massive wildfire in March, which originated in the SR-8 range aboard MCB Camp Lejeune, is providing new life to rare plants, such as the rough-leaf loosestrife, and endangered animal species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker.

At times, fires are needed and are common with wildlife, noted Craig Tenbrink, a MCB Camp Lejeune Environment Management Division wildlife biologist who manages the Threatened and Endangered Species Program. Every few years, base environmental officials conduct prescribed burning to rid the forest of shrubby vegetation and preserve the coastal plain plant species and animal life. However, the unexpected wildfire that took place aided in the process.

Fires knock shrubby vegetation into ecotones, the area between the wetlands and the uplands where some rare plants survive. The fire then burns the vegetation across the wetlands which will keep the ecotones sunny and provide for longer plant life.
“Without fires, these plants would disappear,” said Tenbrink. “These plants are use to disruptive fires because the fires get rid of that shrubby vegetation. Once an area begins the regrowth process, it will provide a more palatable food source for animals. The plant life grows back even stronger too.”

Birds like the red-cockaded woodpecker prefer old-growth pines, like pond pine and longleaf pine trees, which heavily dominated the area’s tree life. The bird is on the endangered list due to habitat loss, such as logging and, in this case, hardwood trees.

If fires do not occur, hardwood trees such as oak and sweet gum, will eventually take over the pine forest, which will also cause the pine trees to vanish, thus leaving the red-cockaded woodpecker without a home.

“When you suppress a fire, the hardwoods take over,” said Tenbrink. “They are not as tolerant of fire. You can burn a longleaf pine without killing it. Fires can kill hardwood, such as sweet gum and oak.”

The fire also helped preserve tree life. Acorns on the pine trees are key to germination, which is the process of repopulating the forest. When heat from the fire rises, acorns release seeds, which will fall on the ground, and the ash will act as a fertilizer and help the seeds settle and begin the process to grow.

“Pine trees will take usually 30 to 40 years to become mature,” said Tenbrink. “Really, the only way new trees will grow is if heat gets to the acorns and makes them pop which will send the seeds everywhere. The acorns could essentially be up (on the branches) for years, if a fire doesn’t occur.”
Tenbrink said since the land belongs to the federal government, the MCB Camp Lejeune Environmental Management Division has an obligation to protect federally protected wildlife and will use methods, such as prescribed fires, in the future to make sure these rare plants and endangered animals flourish.

“The kind of natural condition around here is pre-European settlement, which is longleaf pine, grass and scattered hardwood,” said Tenbrink. “We need to mimic the wildfire that took place, but with minimal tree loss. Without doing so, these rare plants, endangered species and even other (life forms) won’t stick around.”