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Make your voice heard
USFS is accepting comments on the plan to perform prescribed burns in Linville Gorge through Tuesday, Jan. 15. USFS has asked that questions and comments be directed to Heather Luczak, who can be contacted by calling (828) 257-4817 or by emailing (hluczak@fs.fed.us) In addition, http://www.savelgw.org has provided an online petition for anyone who objects to the burning. As of presstime, the petition contained 441 signatures. As always, The Avery Journal-Times invites all perspectives in the form of letters to the editor. See our Letters to the Editor section on page 5 for guidelines on how submit your thoughts on this or other issues in this edition.
Originally published: 2013-01-10 15:54:00
Last modified: 2013-01-10 15:54:00

Residents oppose controlled burns

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

In a letter dated May 18, 2012, U.S. Forest Service alerted citizens in the vicinity of Linville Gorge Wilderness Area of plans to perform prescribed burning throughout 11,786 acres of Linville Gorge and 4,800 acres in the nearby National Forest System.
The letter cited three rationales for the burning, including the restoration of historic burning patterns, to aid two fire-adapted endangered species and to reduce the buildup of burning fuel on the forest floor.
The letter also pointed to a reduction in non-native invasive plant species in the area as another benefit of the prescribed burns.
In response to the letter, communities around Linville Gorge began to raise oppositions to the proposal. Many of those objections coalesced into the creation of a website, http://www.savelgw.org.
The website lists a variety of arguments against the proposed plans, including its designation as a wilderness area, and the potential for any prescribed fire to grow out of control.
Residents also objected to the potential impact on the local economy, which is derived in part from tourism oriented around Linville Gorge.
Sue Crotts, a resident of Gingercake Acres, which borders Linville Gorge, has objected through local government as well as online.
According to Crotts, the rationale for the grant that is funding the project included the argument that the burning would be beneficial to the nearby economy. According to Crotts, however, all of the purported benefits would be felt only in Asheville, rather than in the communities in the immediate vicinity of Linville Gorge, which could be adversely affected.
To learn about the potential impact on the economy most local to Linville Gorge, The Avery Journal-Times spoke to David Peters, who owns and operates Parkview Lodge in Linville Falls, providing lodging and beer and wine sales for visitors stopping to visit sites like Linville Gorge along Blue Ridge Parkway. According to Peters, Linville Gorge is definitely one element that keeps the local economy flowing.
“I could grab any number out of the sky, but I would say that a strong percentage of the business in the Linville Falls community and the surrounding areas would be affected by this,” Peters said. “There are a ton of people who come here to hike the gorge and see the falls, but the impact is farther reaching.”
According to Peters, if tourists are deterred from Linville Gorge, the impact could reach the entire region, as visitors choose other areas for their vacations.
“When there is damage on the Parkway somewhere, they don’t come to the region,” Peters said. “If the gorge is burning, they might avoid four or five counties. When we have had fires before, the impact has been very far reaching.“
In addition, Peters said, the local economy cannot afford any more setbacks at this point in time.
“We are going to be 60 degrees this weekend,” Peters said. “So the skiing economy is being pushed down. Do we need a manmade additional thing to push our economy down even lower? Is now the right time?”
While the risk to the local economy is certainly a long-term concern for many, one of the most pressing concerns for many residents around Linville Gorge, and one that http://www.savelgw.org emphasizes, is the potential for any prescribed fire to become uncontrollable and damage unintended areas or even residences.
To learn more about the risk associated with a prescribed burn, The Avery Journal-Times turned to local wildfire and controlled burn expert, Joe Shoupe, who serves as the N.C.F.S. ranger for Avery County.  As the organizer of the all-volunteer wildfire strike team, Shoupe has extensive experience in battling wildfires, as well as managing controlled burns in the area, giving him a locally focused expertise on fighting fires on the ridges and mountainsides of Avery County. As a N.C.F.S. ranger, Shoupe has no stake in the proposed prescribed burn in the Linville Gorge.
Though Shoupe is not involved with the specific planning of the proposed burns in Linville Gorge, he said that, in general, such things are very carefully done.
“I really don’t think the risk is all that great,” Shoupe said. “I don’t know all the ins and outs of their plan, but I know that typically, there is a lot of planning that goes into a controlled burn. Just in general, with prescribed burns, the biggest threat with a fire is burning up slope. You can’t really do anything with a fire that is burning up slope unless you can get to a ridgeline or a significant road above it. So, typically what is done with a controlled burn is that you light it at the top and let burn back downhill.”
Shoupe also explained that much of the planning has to do with waiting for an opening of appropriate weather, which can often be quite small.
“There is a pretty narrow window of weather opportunity to do it under controlled conditions,” Shoupe said. “There have been some controlled burns that have gotten out of control, locally and nationwide, and there are different reasons that happens. Typically, it is because of some shift in the weather pattern that catches the team off guard.”
Shoupe noted that the rationale for most controlled burns has to do with reducing the fuel load on the forest floor. By reducing the fuel load under controlled conditions, Shoupe said, it prevents a possible wildfire from doing as much damage as it would do otherwise.
“I am sure that one, if not the main, reason they are wanting to do it is to reduce the fire intensity. To take some of the fuel, so that if a wildfire does start, it doesn’t burn nearly as hot and intense,” Shoupe said. “Anybody that is really an advocate of controlled burning says that Smokey the Bear has been our worst enemy in some ways. Since WWII, all the agencies declared war on forest fires. It was 100-percent prevention.
“If you go back to the Indians and early settlers, they used to burn the woods off regularly. That helped to promote grounds for wildlife, and helped to keep the fuel in the forest down to leaf litter.”
Shoupe also noted that due to recent events, such as the introduction of the pine beetle that left many dead trees and the ice storms that brought down much more organic matter, the fuel load on the forest floor is currently much higher in many areas than it would normally be.
“You have a much more intense fire load then than the typical leaf fall each autumn,” Shoupe said. “If you could go in every few years and do a controlled burn to keep those fire loads down, then if you have a wildfire, it doesn’t burn as hot. That is the theory behind it.”
Shoupe, acknowledged the inherent threat of any wildfire and the risk of a controlled burn getting out of control, but he also expressed his confidence in the expertise of the USFS’s forest management teams.
“I can understand their concern, but I really don’t feel like the USFS is going to be out there doing something negligent,” Shoupe said. “I am sure they will have people who are duly qualified and have the right experience to do the work. It is not just somebody they hire off the street to come in and be burn boss over a large controlled burn. It just doesn’t happen that way.”
Another issue that has given many residents pause is the fact that the letters warning residents of burn did not go out to some key areas around Linville Gorge, including North Cove and some areas in Linville Falls, where some residents have learned about the issue only in the past several weeks, causing the outcry to become more and more pronounced in the community and online over the past month.
Make your voice heard
USFS is accepting comments on the plan to perform prescribed burns in Linville Gorge through Tuesday, Jan. 15. USFS has asked that questions and comments be directed to Heather Luczak, who can be contacted by calling (828) 257-4817 or by emailing (hluczak@fs.fed.us) In addition, http://www.savelgw.org has provided an online petition for anyone who objects to the burning. As of presstime, the petition contained 441 signatures. As always, The Avery Journal-Times invites all perspectives in the form of letters to the editor. See our Letters to the Editor section on page 5 for guidelines on how submit your thoughts on this or other issues in this edition.