History and legacy of fire effects in the South Carolina piedmont and coastal regions
Agriculture, fire suppression, and urbanization have drastically altered natural forest processes and conditions since humankind settled in the Southeastern United States. Today, many of South Carolina’s forests are dense and overstocked, with high fuel loads. These conditions increase the susceptibility of forests to southern pine beetle attack and wildfire. These threats are further complicated by rapid urbanization and forest fragmentation, processes that are increasing South Carolina’s wildland-urban interface at a rapid rate. Prescribed fire is an effective, economical, and widely used tool for reducing fuel loads and encouraging desired vegetative communities in forest landscapes. However, research into the effects of prescribed fire often generates more questions than answers. This paper considers fire effects on soil erosion, nutrients, and vegetation from a historical perspective. We examined historical fire regimes, land use changes, and fire research. The majority of literature indicates that soil erosion does not occur unless a severe climatic event follows prescribed fire. There is also evidence of a fertilization effect in the soil following prescribed fire, although this is typically of short duration and accompanied by some nutrient loss in the forest floor. Effects of prescribed fire on the productivity, composition, and regeneration of vegetation are more complex and ambiguous. Effects are primarily determined by antecedent local conditions and fire severity and intensity. Knowledge of past land use and fire’s biological and historical roles in land use change can support effective decision making. This knowledge will provide guidance for sustainable management of forest resources and reduction of hazardous forest fuel conditions.