Neighbors are aflame over a U.S. Forest Service plan to burn more than 16,000 acres in and around the rugged Linville Gorge Wilderness of Burke and McDowell counties.
The low-intensity fires would burn brush that could otherwise fuel a full-blown wildfire, the service says, and benefit native plants that rely on regular blazes. Lightning fires once struck the gorge every few years. Now theyre often human-caused and snuffed out.
Prescribed fire is a key part of a 40,000-acre restoration project including the gorge that was announced in February. A wide range of conservation, environmental and sporting groups are collaborating on the project.
But neighbors and other critics envision charred hiking trails and fire gone wild. North Carolinas grand canyon, they say, is best left alone.
Homeowners in Gingercake Acres, a development northeast of the 11,786-acre gorge, fear a prescribed fire could rage out of control. While thats a rare event, it happened last October at Pilot Mountain State Park and last summer in Croatan National Forest near the coast.
Because the Forest Service plans burns every five to 10 years, in four or more areas, homeowners envision a regular blackening that wont appeal to the hikers, climbers and campers who flock to the gorge.
I dont think they have any business burning a wilderness area, said Charlotte resident Bernard Clark, who owns a house in Gingercake Acres. Anybody who loves the gorge, who loves wilderness, is not going to enjoy that.
The Forest Service will take public comments through January and says the plans could change. The regional forester in Atlanta will make the final decision after an environmental assessment is released by midyear.
The service says prescribed fires would be a safer alternative to the blazes, most caused by humans, that have burned nearly 20,000 acres in and near the gorge since 2000.
The issue is not so much if the gorge will burn, but when, said Forest Service spokesman Stevin Westcott.
A new layer of dry leaves falls each year, said Steve Little, the services assistant fire management officer in Asheville. Damage from bug infestations and ice storms drops more fire fuel.
If we can eliminate the fuel and hazards under our terms, as opposed to a human ignition on a hot, windy day, we stand a much better chance of controlling it, he said.
Fire would help two threatened plant species in the gorge mountain golden heather and Hellers blazing star that are being shaded out by shrubs, the service says. It also would bring back table mountain pine, whose cones need high heat to release seeds.
The fires will leave blackened tree trunks and ground, said Josh Kelly, a public lands biologist at the Western North Carolina Alliance. The Asheville-based environmental group is collaborating on the restoration project.
When the ground greens up again, he said, it will grow more herbaceous plants and wildflowers and less rhododendron and mountain laurel.
Nearly 4,600 acres already have been burned in the first six months of the 10-year Grandfather Restoration Project, which includes Linville Gorge. The Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition are among 15 outdoors groups and government agencies backing the project.
The fires are lit only when temperatures, humidity and wind directions allow them to be safely controlled. Fewer than 1 percent in national forests become wildfires, the service says.
The 21,000-acre Croatan National Forest fire spread, the service says, because embers fell into dry wilderness areas where bulldozers werent allowed to carve fire lines.
Gorge neighbors arent reassured.
Im not worried about my house I have insurance, said Gingercake homeowner Susan Crotts of Greensboro. I cannot replace the Linville Gorge if you burn it down.
Save Linville Gorge Wilderness, which is circulating petitions against the burn plan, has found support from Montana-based Wilderness Watch.
That group maintains the federal Wilderness Act, which protects the gorge, is meant to hold in check human manipulation of wild areas. Prescribed fire, said executive director George Nickas, is part of a growing tendency to meddle with those places.
I do know what we will lose by going in and doing these manipulations, he said. And thats the wildness of these places.