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Controlled burning helps Piedmont Environmental Center’s forest

HIGH POINT, N.C. – It sounds strange, but staff members that are dedicated to celebrating the wonders of the natural world were setting brush fires at the North Preserve of High Point's Piedmont Environmental Center.

"In the absence of fire, deciduous trees will begin to move in and invade the pine forest and take the pine forest over," explained Piedmont Environmental Center Director Dick Thomas.

Overgrowth and trees like maple and oak have to go. Staff members and volunteers split up and set a controlled burn to cover 20 acres. But after a year filled with record rainfall, naturalist and educator Tom Shepherd ran into some trouble.

"It's pretty wet underneath. All of the maple and oak leaves don't burn well," said Shepherd.

Crews constantly relight the fire. Eventually, the 20 acres begin to burn, setting the stage for new growth.

"Pine seedlings need bare mineral soil in order to germinate," Shepherd said. "So, to get reproduction in this pine forest, the seeds need to fall onto areas without a deep humus layer."

For a successful controlled burn, Thomas said you need a clear day and winds that will help fan the flames and keep the most of the smoke away from homes.

"Today is a good day to burn because the ventilation rate is good. The smoke will go straight up and then get carried away by transport winds," said Thomas.

The scorched earth will provide pine seedlings the food they need in order to grow. The burned land will also help wildlife that live in the forest.

"Red headed woodpeckers, we've seen eastern hog nose snake," Shepherd said. "Deer will be able to browse the new growth coming up."

The Piedmont Environmental Center has been practicing controlled burning for 25 years. Over that time, they have seen the positive results.

"You can look out through here, it's open," said Thomas. "The sunlight can penetrate the ground to benefit flowering plants on the ground."

The controlled burn should last one day. But due to the damp leaves and overgrowth, the fire could burn slower. That means the 20-acre controlled burn could extend into a second day.

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