Editor’s note: Nathan Burmester is the Coastal Plain Stewardship Manager for The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina. He also serves as an at-large board member for the North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council. In this blog, Nathan comments on the 2023 Pulp Road Wildfire in North Carolina, which began as an escaped prescribed burn and was managed through a series of collaborative decisions and educational efforts to produce positive effects on the ecosystem.

This blog is the first in a special 2024 series on “managed wildfire.” All wildfires are managed somehow. There is increasing interest in and action around doing so in a way that prioritizes safety while also considering how to use wildfires to achieve burned acres in ecosystems where it is appropriate. This blog series will explore the stories of practitioners who are finding ways to safely and creatively manage wildfires in their place. Stay tuned for future posts on this theme.

The Pulp Road Wildfire near Wilmington, NC made national news in June 2023 as the largest wildfire in the nation at the time. The 15,642 acre wildfire blanketed the area in thick smoke and burned through The Nature Conservancy’s Green Swamp Preserve, a world renowned biological hotspot and home to about 30% of all known wild Venus flytraps.  Many members of the public viewed the wildfire as a tragedy that damaged this truly unique place. However not only has the recovery been incredible, but it has been a fantastic opportunity to educate our communities on the importance of fire to the native ecosystems they love.  As part of that education, we created the Pulp Road Wildfire Storymap and Pulp Road Wildfire Video, both of which are tools we can use for years to come to remind all our stakeholders about the importance of fire to the Green Swamp and Eastern North Carolina.

A closeup image of a Venus flytrap plant
The Green Swamp Preserve contains 30% of all known wild Venus flytraps. This iconic plant is endemic to a roughly 75-mile radius around Wilmington, NC. Photo Credit: Skip Pudney.

What Happened

The wildfire was started by an escaped controlled burn on land adjacent to the Green Swamp Preserve.  The initial prescribed fire went very well, however the following day the winds picked up, humidities dropped, and the fire escaped.  Upon further investigation by the National Weather Service, the dry and extremely windy conditions on the day following the initial burn occur very rarely; only about 0.5% of the time in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina!

After initial attempts to cut the fire off failed, the North Carolina Forest Service (NCFS) decided to complete a burn out operation of the greater preserve.  The ecosystems of the Green Swamp provide many challenges to fire control including extremely thick and volatile pocosin fuels, wet swampy terrain, and a total lack of accessibility, even to bulldozers and other specialized equipment. 

A person stands in a wetland known as a
Pocosins are wetlands with many feet deep peat soils. These soils combined with the shrubby, often evergreen vegetation that grows in these ecosystems is extremely difficult for humans to move through. Wildlife species like endangered red wolves, black bears, and bobcats use these habitats. Photo credit: NC Wetlands (2018).

The burnout operation was a major success, however locals and visitors to the area were still impacted by smoke.  Parts of the Green Swamp had not seen fire since 1955, which meant there was a huge buildup of available fuel, and the resulting smoke cloud was massive.  Unfortunately, the dominant wind direction blew smoke and ash towards the City of Wilmington and the surrounding beaches during the busy summer tourist season.  A nearby highway was under whiteout conditions for several hours.  Furthermore, reports to the public stated that the fire was increasing in acreage rapidly with 0% containment for several days in a row. This sounded incredibly alarming, especially for those whose homes were nearby.

Fortunately, once the burnout operation was completed, 3 days after being declared a wildfire, the smoke quickly began to dissipate. With the help of several inches of rainfall, containment rapidly grew.  As public concern over smoke impacts faded, in its place was a growing concern that the Green Swamp had been decimated and the rare plants and animals living there had been lost.  But as anyone who has had the pleasure of walking through a recently burned area in the Southeast in the growing season can tell you, these plants and animals love fire and recover incredibly quickly!  7 days following the fire the wiregrass was already sprouting back and two inches tall.  10 days after the fire grass-pink orchids were blooming and bears were scratching the charred bark off to mark trees.  Scouting, tours, aerial imagery, and monitoring all showed that the Green Swamp Preserve was not lost, but rather rejuvenated.

Lessons Learned

When these kinds of events occur, the public is going to make assumptions and draw conclusions from what they hear in the news.  If that message is not crystal clear, a lot of their conclusions are going to be wildly inaccurate if not outright wrong, and this can work against us as fire practitioners.  The real story of this fire was that it was not possible to cut off and so the decision was made to burn out the entire swamp in a relatively controlled manner.  From the public’s perspective though, it appeared that the fire went from 2,000 to 16,000 acres over the course of 3 days with virtually 0% containment the entire time.  

It is not easy to assemble a public information team quickly amidst the chaos of an emergency, but there are important things we can do at every time scale to help mitigate situations like this and to forward our mission of #goodfire:   

  1. Immediate response: Get accurate information out as quickly as possible.  We made a couple videos onsite with a cell phone showing some of the immediate fire effects and explaining the various fire regimes of affected ecosystems.  We also engaged on social media and tried to get the word out to news outlets that fire like this is beneficial for an area like the Green Swamp.  Lastly, we began monitoring immediately; these systems recover so quickly that you need to start taking pictures and videos right away to document the change. 
  2. Intermediate response: Use collected data to create high-quality communication products that address public questions. This is where we developed the storymap and video as well as held a media day to get reporters out into the field to see the fire effects firsthand.  
  3. Long term: Provide ongoing, engaging education about fire. Thanks to many partnering agencies and the Orton Foundation we have been hosting the Fire in the Pines Festival annually in Wilmington for 10 years.  This free event for the public seeks to educate families about the benefits of fire in a fun and entertaining day that culminates in a demonstration controlled burn.
A woman in a firefighting shirt and gloves sits in a wheelchair and drags a drip torch along the boundary of a prescribed fire. She is pushed by a man wearing a firefighting shirt. A crowd of kids and adults stand nearby and watch.
The Mayor of Wilmington pushes Miss Wheelchair USA as she lights the demonstration burn at the 2017 Fire in the Pines Festival. Photo credit: Mike Spencer, TNC North Carolina.

We learned several other key lessons from this experience that will inform our work moving forward:

  1. Be prepared for events like this. Building a database of maps with critical locations before you need it is paramount.  On this fire I was able to utilize an ESRI WebApp that my team had developed with all the data that we would need on it to quickly create a map that everyone could use on the incident.  I literally took my laptop out during the morning briefing, pulled up our layers, and put a map together with all the critical data on it in a matter of minutes!  Without this information, I have no doubt that irreplaceable ecosystems within the Green Swamp would have been damaged in the attempt to control this fire.  
  2. Build relationships.  Seven months before this incident The Nature Conservancy met with the NCFS and discussed the possibilities of a wildfire in the Green Swamp and what each of our priorities would be, and how we might respond.  That conversation, and that relationship helped shape the outcomes of this fire and led to the preservation of rare resources.  

Moving Forward

This wildfire has created an amazing opportunity for future management.  The fact that the Green Swamp really cannot be subdivided makes burning it an overwhelming challenge, even more so when there was 68 years of vegetation buildup!  Now that the fuel load has been significantly reduced, we have a unique opportunity to restore a natural fire regime to the swamp.  This is still no easy task, and it remains to be seen if it is even possible, but The Nature Conservancy is bringing together multiple agencies and subject matter experts from all over the state to discuss the possibilities.  Once again, I want to underscore the importance of relationships; we looked at contracting out aerial imagery of the wildfire, but it was prohibitively expensive.  However, after mentioning this to partners at the table, they actually had an aerial platform and were able to fly the burn the very next day.  There is no doubt that maintaining fire in the Green Swamp will require massive coordination among stakeholders, but the door is open, and this is too great an opportunity to pass up.

Final Word

Lastly, I want to make a plug to not be boring!  Today’s technology is amazing and there are so many neat and engaging ways to share information with the public and with each other, it would be a shame to not utilize all the tools available to us.  Our current reactive approach to fire management in this country is unsustainable, even more so in a climate that is becoming hotter and drier.  It is time to embrace and invest in managed wildfires and prescribed fire, and most importantly, we need to not keep the secret to ourselves.  We need to engage the public and take every opportunity to point to the ecological and financial benefits of living with fire instead of fighting it.  The days of Smokey Bear are over, and it’s time for Burner Bob to take the reins.

Additional photos:

The glow of a fire comes through trees at night during a managed wildfire.
The Pulp Road Wildfire burning overnight through pocosin fuels into the wind – a very uncommon occurrence, only possible by the rare weather pattern. Photo credit: Nathan Burmester.
Thick smoke rises into the sky above a forested area.
Thick smoke blocks out the sun as the burnout operation concludes. Photo credit: Nathan Burmester.
Bright pink flowers bloom on stems that rise about six inches above the ground, which has been recently burned by the fire.
Grass-pink orchids and wiregrass resprout 10 days after the wildfire. Photo credit: Nathan Burmester.


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