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Good News: Gulf State Park Fire Reduces Fuel Load

July 14, 2011

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

With rainfall about 20 inches below normal for Alabama’s coastal counties, it didn’t take much to turn the vegetation that abounds in Gulf State Park into a tinderbox. When an errant ember from a cooking fire apparently hit the ground, it started a wildfire recently that scorched almost 900 acres.

The combination of drought conditions and the unique flora associated with the park is what made the fire so difficult to contain, according to Forrest Bailey, Chief of the Natural Resource Section of the Alabama State Parks Division.

“Gulf State Park has unique flora and fauna,” Bailey said. “The plant community there is characterized as ‘Southern rough,’ which means it’s pretty volatile fuel when it comes in contact with fire. The plants have a lot of oil in their vascular systems, and they become very volatile when the temperatures from fire get to a certain point. The oils in the plants are basically a protective mechanism from the heat, but you get a tough situation with a wildfire.

“Prescribed fire, even under the best circumstances, with Southern rough on the coast is unique because of the specialized plant species.”

That unique plant community includes: titi, bayberry (wax myrtle), privet species, saw palmetto, Chinese popcorn trees and a variety of climbing vines, as well as several species of pines.

“Those climbing vines will ladder up into the midstory and canopy,” Bailey said. “Once fire reaches that and gets going, that fire can move up that plant like a ladder and into the canopy.”

There are also different grasses in the park, such as sawgrass and bunchgrass, as well as cogongrass, an invasive species that, unfortunately, is not killed by wildfire.

“So, you’ve got competing vegetation that grows very quickly from ground to midstory and that’s where your threats come in with a fire that’s out of control,” Bailey said.

Under normal rainfall conditions along the coast, this type of vegetation doesn’t cause many problems. However, with a very dry spring and summer, the moisture content in the plants and air has increased the odds of a wildfire.

Earlier this summer, Gov. Robert Bentley issued a statewide ban on burning, which includes prescribed fire, open burning or any trash burning. Cooking fires in containerized vessels were the only outside fires allowed. Some recent rainfall has reduced the number of counties under the burn ban to 21 in central and south Alabama.

Bailey said the Gulf State Park fire is just one example of the care that needs to be taken with any type of fire in drought conditions.

“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “Cigarettes cause fires in the grass along the interstates. Sparks from hot brakes or catalytic converters can start fires in dry vegetation. Plus, you’ve got fireworks around the holidays.

“And one of the things about Gulf State Park that most people are not aware of is that in the area that burned in the interconnecting swamp system, there is a true peat bog. So what happens under these drought conditions is the swamp dries up to a degree. In areas where fires might be stopped or put out by the moisture in the swamps, the fire now runs around these swamp zones and it can start burning down into the ground and into the peat. Then it takes on a whole different life underground. It might move hundreds and hundreds of feet and pop up and start another spot fire. It’s happened before and happened this time. Theoretically, you could have these fires underground for several weeks until you have several inches of rain to put them out.”

Bailey said the best firefighting method in areas like Gulf State Park is setting backfires that eliminate the fuel before the main fire gets to the area.

“Once the fire gets into the fuel load and gets into the midstory and higher, up in the canopy, then it moves on its own accord and creates its own wind, so to speak,” he said.

One of the problems on the Gulf Coast is the sea breeze phenomenon that shifts the winds during the middle of the day, which complicates fighting fire.

“When you’ve got superheated vegetation that is explosive and volatile, if the wind shifts, those embers can rise and move to other parts of the property,” Bailey said. “You may get it contained to a degree and due to shifting winds it moves to another course.

“You set up firebreaks wherever possible. The Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail System is primarily a trail, but it also serves as a firebreak. But if a fire gets a full head of steam, it can easily jump a firebreak.”

Another aspect of the Gulf State Park fire was the amount of fuel left in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. The saltwater intrusion killed swaths of vegetation and pine trees.

“A great part of that corridor where the fire was had storm-damaged timber that State Parks had not salvaged,” Bailey said. “We weren’t able to get back in and get it due to where it was back then. This year, compared to prior years, was completely different. In previous years, the ground has been too wet to get the timber. This year has been a dry spring and summer. Consequently, that fuel load was very, very high. A lot of trees and small pines in those zones were dead, and a lot of the vegetation was growing back, which added to that fuel load.”

Fortunately, the fire was contained to areas of the park that were away from the main facilities. The main areas impacted by the fire in the park are north of Campground Road. The Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail is closed in places because it had to be used as a firebreak, and heavy equipment was brought in to fight the fire.

Bailey said the extreme eastern part of the campground may be impacted for a short period, but the rest of the campground is open. Other recreational areas in the park were spared. The areas with cabins, Middle Lake, Lake Shelby and the golf course were not impacted.

“The silver lining in all this is that it burned up a good bit of the fuel that we haven’t been able to burn because of different environmental conditions,” he said. “The 533 acres that is north of Campground Road to Ridge Trail was a situation waiting to happen. We had tried to do prescribed burning, but the weather shifted and we had to cancel. Burning with a fuel load like that is a real challenge.

“So even though the fire was a negative in terms of volatility and what it could have done, it is a positive thing in removing the heavy fuel loads that we had been working on after the hurricanes.”

Visit www.alapark.com for more information about campsite and cabin availability.

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