Unlike many places in the US, wildland fires are generally uncommon in the Southern Appalachians and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even when fires do occur here they tend to be less intense, burn smaller areas and occur in limited ecosystems. But this is not to say that fires had no role here in the Appalachians, in some vegetation communities they were vitally important.
Typically wildfires would occur on exposed ridges or southern slopes where the fuels are exposed to wind and sunshine and the sites are drier. Fires at some of these sites may have occurred as often as every five to ten years. Lightning strikes, especially during the summer, could strike trees along the ridges, igniting the tree and fuels below. The fire would then travel downhill burning the leaf litter, woody debris and some brush or trees as it went. Generally, however, these fires were not intense and large trees would be left unharmed as the fire passed. Eventually the fire would run into the shaded, moist coves where fuels could not carry the fire any farther and it would go out.
There are some ecosystems along the Parkway that benefit from, and even need, fire to exist. Table Mountain Pines grow along ridges and on dry, south-facing slopes. These pines have serotinous cones that need fire for the cones to open and the seeds to fall to the ground. Fires expose mineral soil and remove some of the overstory trees, allowing the seeds to germinate and the seedlings to grow. Without fire Table Mountain Pines will not reproduce and these forests will be taken over by other species.
Oak forests occur on drier sites and fires help them to compete with other trees. Oak trees have a thick bark and are able to survive the ground fires that are typical on these sites. Maples and many other trees have thin bark and even low-intensity fires can heat the cambium layer and kill these trees, removing them from competing with the oaks. Suppression of wildfires has resulted in many areas that once contained oak forest being converted to other forest communities.
These days fires on the Parkway are more likely human-caused than the result of lightning strikes. From 1982 through 2002 there were 176 fires that occurred at least partially on park lands, burning 1,473 acres. Of these only 23 (13%) were lightning caused, burning a total of 506 acres. The remaining fires were the result of arson, campfires, cigarettes, vehicle fires, debris burning and other causes.
Typically fires along the Parkway remain small, in part because of the type of fuels involved but also because the fires are put out as soon as they are found. Almost half the fires (75 out of the 176 fires) only burned about 0.1 acres. Another 73 were less than 1 acre meaning that 83% of all fires were 1 acre or less. Only nine fires burned more than 100 acres.
Did You Know?
The Blue Ridge Parkway ranges in elevation from 649 feet at James River in Virginia to almost 6,050 feet at Richland Balsam, south of Mount Pisgah,North Carolina.