Fire crews plowed a section of Sandy Run Savannas State Natural Area known to contain a number of rare and endangered plants, an investigation has revealed.
State and federal officials are now reviewing procedures for handling fire management near environmentally sensitive habitats after the incident, which happened in late June. That's when crews fighting the massive Juniper Road fire on the border of Pender and Onslow counties in the southeastern part of the state established fire lines north and east of the blaze, near the community of Maple Hill. They ran plows and bulldozers along power line cuts and unpaved roads to clear brush that might fuel the fire. That vegetation included at least two federally listed endangered species.
The area included the 2,500-acre Sandy Run Savannas, which was named a state natural area in 2006. According to the North Carolina Forest Service, a state parks representative on June 22 told members of the Juniper Road Fire Incident Management Team (IMT) about the importance of the area, which includes a portion marked with a sign that reads "Sensitive Habitat Use Caution."
The savannas of southeastern North Carolina are the sole habitat of several rare species, the most well known being the Venus flytrap. Legislation that named Sandy Run a State Natural Area notes that the savannas "possess biological resources of statewide significance" with "rare species that include Venus flytrap, golden sedge, red-cockaded woodpecker, Cooley's meadowrue, yellow fringeless orchid, Carolina goldenrod, and rough-leaf loosestrife."
According to a report by N.C. Division of Forestry spokesperson Brian Haines, "The discussion was of a general rather than specific nature. The N.C. Parks and Recreation Resource Advisor was made aware of the intent to operate fire plows in the power line area and did not raise an objection. It is possible that the Resource Advisor thought the plowing would be at a more minimal level than what was implemented."
The extent of the destruction is evident from the highway. On one side of the road, a wide strip of sandy, bare soil stretches up the power line; on the other side of the road there are blooms and fall foliage.
Hervey McIver, a protection specialist with the Nature Conservancy, saw the damage at Sandy Run firsthand. "When I showed up they were already plowing on-site," he said. "Everyone was in a reactive mode to the fire."
The Juniper Road fire started with a lightning strike on June 19 in the Holly Shelter game lands. It took nearly a month to contain, eventually scorching 31,140 acres and costing the state an estimated $3.5 million.
The fire primarily spread south and west; it reached within 2.6 miles of a fire line, a distance forestry officials say could be covered in just five hours by a runaway blaze.
McIver says he's reluctant to second-guess the crews, whose mission is to protect homes and other property. A fire in that area in 1986 consumed 70,000 acres—a memory likely on the minds of forestry officials, he said.
"I hated to see it happen," McIver said of the recent fires. "It was beyond my control and certainly beyond the control of the people on the tractors. They were just following orders."
Ed Corey, a biologist with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, said the destruction of the habitat along the power line was apparently the result of miscommunication. "Something happened. Something fell apart," he said.
Corey said it is difficult to ensure fire crews know about sensitive habitats, but he hopes to prevent future damage like that at Sandy Run.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also trying to determine what happened. Dale Suiter, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met last month with parks and forestry officials to review the incident.
"Right now, it's unresolved and we still have an investigation going on," he said. "We're trying to understand the sequence of events."
Many of the rare plants were initially located along the power cut east of N.C. 50—the area that was not plowed—but more recently other populations of rare plants, including the endangered Cooley's meadowrue and rough-leaf loosetrife, were discovered in the now denuded power cut west of the highway.
Laura Gadd, a botanist with the state's Natural Heritage Program and part of a team that discovered new populations this spring, said areas under power lines often provide a key habitat for rare plants because these spots are regularly cut back.
"The area was valuable," she said. "You had many state and federally listed protected species. They had migrated into the power line. You had a unique place where all those rare species were located."
Like many people familiar with the loss of these plants, Gadd is reluctant to blame anyone, because it's unknown the extent to which fire officials and crews were informed about the sensitive habitat.
Still, she said, the damage to the area was extensive. "The plow lines are so deep, it's likely few survived. "
Corey said he's hopeful that some of the plants may recover. "We're going to monitor it over the next couple of years and see if they come back," he said.
Read the Forest Service response at www.indyweek.com.