Star News Online, Ashley Morris StarNews Staff
SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Dear newcomers, here in Southeastern North Carolina we sometimes set fires on purpose.

Yes, there is a such thing as controlled burns and local fire officials and conservationists say getting the controlled burning message across to new folks can sometimes be a challenge. Mostly because there are new people arriving in the area each year.

“Smokey the Bear did a great job — people perceive any fire as a bad fire,” said Dan Ryan, longleaf pine program director at The Nature Conservancy. “But controlled burns serve two purposes. They reduce the amount of fuel for actual wildfires and they create a greater bio-diversity for plant and animal species.”

These controlled burns will start to crank up, particularly in the next few weeks, and continue throughout the spring and early fall. The best and safest times for the forestry service and others to burn is when the temperatures are low enough so fires will not get out of control, Ryan said.

Unfortunately though this is the best way to make conserve the environment for plants and animals, humans complain when they see or smell smoke. And as these controlled burns kickoff this month, so will an increase in calls to 911 centers.

It puts people like battalion chief David Hines with the Wilmington Fire Department in a pickle. He cannot tell residents not to call 911 when they see smoke, but he tries to put out information when there will be controlled burns so that residents may be better informed. While many of the burns take place in Brunswick County, on windy days the smoke can drift across the river and surround the city with smoke and ash.

“Sometimes I tell people to just call 911 if you see an actual fire,” Hines said. “Almost everyone has a cell phone on them these days, and so there is a great likelihood that if there is a fire and you just see smoke, someone has already called it in.”

Brunswick Emergency Management director Scott Garner said no matter how many calls they get during the burns, they actually go out and investigate each call.

“We treat all the calls the same,” he said.

Ryan wants locals to know that this controlled burning process has been going on for thousands of years naturally. When lightning or humans start unintentional fires, the flames clear the underbrush and make way for species. The longleaf pine then has a place to germinate and those pines create a home for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Plants like the native Venus’ flytrap, pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants also thrive in post-burned soil. But once underbrush rises up again, it blocks the light from those plants that cling so close to the ground.

Burns are regularly conducted around Orton Plantation or the Green Swamp in Brunswick County and the Holly Shelter Game Land in Pender County.

Reporter Ashley Morris can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]