Unique ecosystem flourishes after wildfire

By Brandon Herring - bio | email

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The fire that burned nearly 20,000 acres of land in Horry County and North Myrtle Beach in late April was not totally destructive. The fire has had a positive effect on some forests.

At the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve off Highway 90, the fire helped restore areas of the longleaf pine savanna ecosystem. That ecosystem is fire-dependant, meaning fires are necessary in the area to maintain the specific mix of plants and animals that make it unique.

The Department of Natural Resources has burned some areas of the preserve in an effort to maintain the savanna ecosystem. DNR has also used chemicals and machines to reduce the growth of hardwood trees and other plants that are not characteristic to the pine savanna. However, there are large areas of the forest that cannot be reached or burned because the fires could easily spread out of control. Deanna Ruth with DNR said the wildfire reached areas of the forest that DNR did not.

As a result, plants and animals that are unique trademarks of the ecosystem are thriving Ruth said. Those plants include three carnivorous species: Venus' fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants.

"The wildfire from a biologic standpoint was very good," Ruth said. "We'd gotten to a point where the ecosystem was stagnant in certain areas of the preserve. We weren't seeing some of the species that are indicators species."

Venus' fly traps are of particular interest because they only grow in one area of the world - near the coast of North and South Carolina. Ruth said DNR was previously aware of seven colonies of Venus' fly traps in the preserve. Since the wildfire, six other colonies have sprung up.

Ruth said the wildfire helped create the perfect environment for their growth. The fly trap plants were able to get sufficient sun because the fire burned away brush and shrubs on the ground. With fewer trees and other plants around, the fly traps also had less competition for water. Natural material burned by the fire also returned nutrients to the soil.

The combination of factors not only helped new colonies emerge, it also made the fly traps larger and healthier than previously seen in the preserve.

"Even the existing colonies that we've had have flourished under this burning that happened in the springtime," Ruth explained. "And they're much bigger. The fly traps themselves are approaching two inches. [They were] usually half an inch to an inch as far as the size. So they're twice as large as they usually are."

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