White ash fell like snow and smoke filled the air as flames licked at the trunks of the trees. The sound was thunderous as the fire roared through the woodland at a frightening pace. As the blaze grew in intensity, it became a living, breathing presence that devoured all the undergrowth in its path. This fire was no accident, but a carefully controlled burn that would benefit this longleaf pine habitat located in the coastal plains of North Carolina.

Natural fires once nurtured these forests; but as cities and towns grew, they were suppressed to protect homes and businesses. Fire suppression began to alter these ecosystems, throwing them off balance and causing stress in the flora and fauna. Human intervention became necessary to restore the delicate balance of these forests. “Smoke on the Road” signs are common in our coastal counties during the spring months.

Periodic controlled burns kill the undergrowth, reducing competition for the young pines and keeping the forest floor reasonably open. Removal of brush reduces forest fuels that can lead to deadly wildfires. Controlled burns also aid in the control of diseases and insects.

This open forest habitat is home to more than 30 species of wildlife, many of which are rare or endangered. It takes 1-3 years for a red-cockaded woodpecker to excavate a nest cavity. This endangered bird is the only woodpecker that excavates their home in living trees, preferably longleaf pine trees. Touted as the most beautiful bird in North America, the painted bunting often makes its home at the swampy edges of longleaf pine forests. Populations of this brilliantly colored songbird are in decline due to loss of habitat. Other threatened or endangered species found in this ecosystem include golden-winged warblers, Bachman’s sparrows, northern pine snakes, timber rattlesnakes, and golfer frogs.

While many understory plants are killed during a burn, a rich diversity of plant life thrives in its aftermath. Native grasses and wildflowers flourish after a burn and provide a valuable source of food for deer, quail, and other songbirds. Native only to a 60-mile radius in North and South Carolina, the Venus flytrap is a meat-eating killer – think ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ At the end of each leaf is a pair of terminal lobes that, when triggered, snap shut trapping prey. As the insect struggles, the trap tightens, and the flytrap secretes enzymes, turning the prey to liquid for easy digestion.

Nestled in a bed of sphagnum moss, the pitcher plant holds a deadly brew of digestive enzymes in the base of its long, graceful trumpet. The sundew is a tiny rosette-shaped plant whose slender leaves terminate in a flattened ‘paddle’. The paddle – lamina – is covered in red hairs through which the plant secretes a sticky substance, the ultimate natural flypaper.

My gratitude goes to the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust for allowing me to witness and photograph the controlled burn. The mission of the land trust is to conserve natural habitats, provide educational opportunities, and to promote responsible land stewardship. To date, the land trust has purchased over 65,000 acres for habitat preservation. They also partner with farmers, landowners, counties and municipalities to preserve unique natural areas, historic landscapes, and public parks and greenways.

The trust sponsors many festivals and activities for kids, as well as an annual golf tournament and wildflower walk. For more information on the trust’s activities, membership, and opportunities to make a real difference in protecting our natural heritage, visit the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust website.