I asked ecologist Jess Riddle, of Georgia ForestWatch, about the ecological effects of the fire. Noting that he hasn’t seen it, but is going on reports, here’s what he had to say about the “ecological purpose” that the firefighters have spoken of in their press releases:
“I think they’re mostly talking about killing saplings of shade tolerant species like red maple and white pine. They’re probably also thinking about knocking mountain laurel stands back to the ground and thinning the duff layer. I can’t say for sure without seeing what the fire actually did, but I suspect most effects will be quite minor and short term. Mountain laurel and red maple will grow back. Some herbaceous species will be much more abundant for a few years, especially some species in the sunflower family like Curtis’s goldenrod and white wood aster. Thinning out the white pine could have a more dramatic effect by favoring hardwoods over pine. If there are areas where the fire was more intense, those may show more dramatic effects. Effects could also be intensified if this area burns again in the next few years or decades. Scarring from this fire could make understory and midstory trees more vulnerable to the next fire.
I don’t know how game species will respond, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they moved little or even favored the burn area. Acorns are the main food at this time of year, it’s unlikely the fire was hot enough to burn them up. Turkeys also favor areas with better visibility and even a low intensity fire will thin out the understory.”
I’m not expecting much early successional habitat from this fire at all. Despite the drought and winds and decades of “fuel buildup”, the fire has been mostly low intensity. There will likely be more death of mature trees from the drought than the fire.
He also passed on a statement from the Georgia ForestWatch:
“Georgia ForestWatch supports letting the Rough Ridge Fire in the Cohutta Wilderness Area burn, but we also support careful monitoring of the situation by wildland fire personnel to ensure public safety. The Rough Ridge Fire was started by lightning, and natural processes are being allowed to play out in a wilderness area. While large, the fire is low in intensity, and does not pose a threat to the health of ecosystems in the Cohuttas. Occasional fire is a natural part of these ecosystems, and plants and animals are adapted to infrequent lightning fires. The main concerns with this fire are property and safety threats. The fire is in one of the most remote parts of Georgia, so few properties are directly threatened. However, air quality is being impacted in some areas not only from this fire, but also several other fires occurring in north GA and neighboring states. Individuals at risk should take appropriate measures. The Forest Service fire personnel have been proactive in protecting structures in the Jones settlement, which is on the edge of the fire, and monitoring the progress of this wildfire. If the fire expands into other more developed areas, more aggressive suppression may be needed.”
And here’s a link to a story in this morning’s Times Free Press, where some of the people on the fire crews give their perspective.