Local News

'Burn boss': Stray ember lit Cumberland wildfire

Posted February 23, 2011 5:07 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2011 7:03 a.m. EST

— A wildfire that charred about 800 acres of woodland in Cumberland County might have started with a state-approved controlled burn, a state-certified forest manager said Wednesday.

Marshall Hartsfield is what the timber industry calls a "burn boss." He's been overseeing controlled burns for 26 years, he said.

About a week before flames erupted south of Cedar Creek on Monday, Hartsfield prepared the recently logged land adjacent to Privateer Farms for a "burn down," making way for a new crop of long-leaf pine trees.

"What the burn down does is knock out the perennial vegetation that competes with the trees. They actually need fire," Hartsfield said.

He tried to do his burn on the previous two weekends, but the ground was too moist, the forester said. Conditions on Feb. 15 seemed just right – cool and calm.

Hartsfield said he always remains on site after a burn "until it's safe or if it rains," but on Monday, as he and his crew were putting sand on hot spots, gusty winds kicked up an ember. The fire caught on so quickly, Hartsfield said, that he was powerless to stop it.

"I left it for a little while, came back and saw it had jumped the line. Unfortunately, it got into that swamp," he said, adding that the swamp's flammable underbrush fueled the blaze.

In accordance with state law, Hartsfield submitted a plan to the state Division of Forest Resources and a for a permit before the burn. A forest service spokeswoman said high winds can sometimes be helpful to a controlled burn, though they do up the risk of fire spreading.

"In some situations, you need wind to carry it through, especially in standing timber," said Hannah Thompson-Welch.

Privateer Farms owner Sharon Valentine said she's working with state officials and conservation groups to convert the land, which sprawls across 6,000 acres near the Bladen County line, into a preserve. She questioned why the state would approve a controlled burn during a drought.

"I think that we've got to be very aware that it's not just drought conditions which we're in, but actual wind conditions," she said.

Hartsfield said he regrets that the fire got out of control but said most of the trees in the fire zone survived and much of the brush in the area was cleared by flames, which will help the long-leaf pines thrive.

"(The area) is not devastated. I don't think we have much timber loss in that swamp," he said.

The fire is still burning, but authorities said it's 100 percent contained and has not grown in size. Flames that were raging through the forest Monday were only about a foot high Wednesday, creeping along through the swampy area.

State forestry officials have not confirmed that the controlled burn started the fire, and it's not clear whether anyone will face charges or fines.