Q&A: Eno River Association’s Indigo Roper-Edwards talks prescribed burning in the Piedmont

Indigo Roper-Edwards applies fire to the Confluence Natural Area on March 13, 2024.

Indigo Roper-Edwards applies fire to the Confluence Natural Area on March 13, 2024. Photo by Brandon Rice.

By Lucy Kraus

Indigo Roper-Edwards, land stewardship manager for the Eno River Association, spoke with the Durham VOICE’s Lucy Kraus about prescribed burning in Durham and surrounding areas and the ERA’s burn at the Confluence Natural Area in Efland on March 13. 

Prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, is the purposeful application of fire to the landscape under specified weather conditions. This practice can have ecological benefits for ecosystems that depend on fire and help prevent catastrophic wildfires.

This interview has been edited for length, accuracy, and clarity. 

Durham VOICE: It would be great if you could start with an overview of this burn [at the Confluence].

Roper-Edwards: This was a fairly small acreage burn, about 20 acres. Our big, number one purpose was we want to start converting some of these old agricultural fields into real Piedmont prairie, so we had two areas that we burned specifically focusing on that. 

We do know that even in other Piedmont systems, there was likely fire occurring more often than it does now. There’s been a long history of fire suppression since the late 1800s, early 1900s, so that has meant that we get less fire in general on the landscape. 

In addition to those fields, we burned through a forested area and down into an area that also used to be a field but hasn’t been [mowed and made into hay], so it’s become dominated by sweet gum and tulip poplar, which are both native trees. But because they grow so densely, they’ve sort of taken over this plot. It doesn’t promote as much tree diversity; we can’t support quite the variety of wildlife we would like it to be supporting. So by burning, we kill some of those sweet gum and tulip poplar and create an opportunity for other native tree species to succeed in that area. A lot of this is a focus on creating biodiversity in the plant community that then fosters biodiversity in the wildlife.

What was the planning process for this burn?

Whenever we’re planning a prescribed burn, the primary factor is generally trying to identify an area that we suspect would have burned or been maintained by fire prior to colonization and development and all the things that we now do on our land that historically haven’t been the case. There’s a lot of systems across the United States that sort of rely on regular fire to continue to exist.

We got a volunteer crew out to help with the burns, so those are folks who watch the edges of the burn on the fire lines and in a few cases with our more experienced volunteers, they’re able to help do the ignition for some of the fires. We use a drip torch, which is basically just a good way to put a little bit of fire down and have it ignite successfully. But this was following up on several stewardship workdays that we held over the month leading up to our burn window — that set of dates we were potentially going to burn — where we built the fire lines. 

Around all of the edges of the fire, we need something that the fire cannot burn through and escape. So in some cases, we can use a geographic barrier. In this case, a couple of our boundaries were actually the East or West fork of the Eno River. Fire almost certainly will not successfully cross a large body of water, so the river is a really nice geographic barrier. We used Highland Farm Road, so just the paved road that the Confluence has access from, as one. But then for other fire lines, we either used existing trails or created new areas where we removed all the leaf litter in about a four- to six-foot wide strip and cleared it down so there wasn’t anything that could ignite in that fire line. And so when we burned, it reached that fire line and then went out. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of fire in North Carolina?

Pre-colonization, we don’t have amazing records to be certain about a lot of the details of how often, where and at what intensity fire happened on the landscape. We deal with the same thing we do in any kind of cultural record, where indigenous knowledge has been lost and intentionally destroyed since colonization, and that would be where we got a lot of that information. We have enough to know that a lot of different ecosystems in North Carolina burned anywhere from almost every year to once every 10 or 20 years, and that plays a big role in determining what kind of ecosystem we get. 

We know that we had that more frequent fire, and that kind of continued to be the case during early colonization through the late 1800s. Some folks used fire to clear land. And part of the reason we had more frequent fire prior to colonization is both that we had ignition from things like lightning strikes that wasn’t suppressed, and we know in parts of the U.S., Indigenous people burned intentionally to clear trade paths or promote the growth of particular plants.

In the early 1900s, following some really catastrophic wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service adopted what they called the 10 A.M. Policy, which was any fire on a natural area must be completely suppressed by 10 a.m. the day after it ignites if possible. This very aggressive suppression strategy was regardless of whether those fires were actually a threat to structures or to houses or anything like that. This was just if it’s burning, put it out.

That continued to be the accepted policy — that not burning anything is what’s best for all natural spaces — and we took that approach pretty consistently through, depending on the area, anywhere from the 1960s to the 80s. Then there started to be more of a shift in “Hey, we’re seeing some evidence that there are ecosystems that need to burn to be healthy and to succeed and to still have the species that occur in them.” 

Longleaf pine or the red cockaded woodpecker is a common example of a wildlife species that relies on fire-maintained systems. We started to see more of that research, and then over the last 40 or 50 years, we’ve moved in this direction of careful and intentional application of fire.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what those future burning plans look like? 

Our next burn that we have planned will be in the late summer or early fall this year, so sometime between late August and mid-October, at Blue Indigo Preserve. Going forward, we’re aiming for an interval of one to two years between each burn at Blue Indigo.

At the Confluence as we start burning, we’ll be aiming for a similar burn interval, especially initially, where we want to suppress the growth of trees and promote the growth of those kinds of herbaceous or grass-like plants that grow at low levels. So initially, we’ll likely be burning hopefully all of the prairie at the Confluence something like every year or two. But because these are dynamic systems, we want to see how they actually respond.

Edited by Courtney Fisher

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