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Controlled burn set for local state park

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Area residents may see smoke wafting over the northeastern portion of Panola Mountain State Park, in Stockbridge, in the coming days, according to park officials.

The plan is to conduct a prescribed burn in March, along a 75-acre slither of land that runs along the Rockdale River PATH Trail, up to the South River in Rockdale County, according to Park Manager Matt Owens.

The prescribed burn is expected to reduce the amount of potential wildfire fuel in an area where lightning strikes and wildfires could occur. He said it also will help protect the park's resources and neighboring landowners, if lightning, arson or carelessness sparks a wildfire.

"What we don't want to do is to alarm anybody," said Owens. "We want to assure our neighbors that they should not be alarmed if they see or smell smoke in the area."

The park official said several considerations must be exactly right before prescribed burns can begin. Weather factors such as relative humidity, wind speed and direction, extended forecasts, atmospheric stability, and days since the last rain, are carefully monitored. He said weather will be monitored throughout the day of the burn, in case unexpected changes arise.

Owens said the burn — meant to encourage restoration of endangered plant species and improve groundcover — is a continuation of native grassland restoration efforts the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The park manager said the controlled fire will occur in a mostly open meadow habitat within the 1,635-acre park. The area of the burn, which includes mixed pine hardwood stands, is typically accessible to the public for bird watching, and permit only, he said.

"To conduct the burn with little or no impact to nearcommunities, Panola Mountain staff will work closely with the Park Division's burn team, The Nature Conservancy and the DNR's Non-Game Division," assured Owens, in a written statement. "All personnel involved in the actual burn are certified Wildland Firefighters."

The park ranger said prescribed burns are used as a resource management tool the state park system. Some plant communities and animal species rely on periodic fire for their existence, he added.

"For thousands of years, lightning ignited the fires necessary to maintain the habitats of these species," Owens said. "But in the last century, fire suppression, road construction and development have disrupted the natural fire cycles."

"Once we're finished, our visitors can look forward to enjoying increased bird watching opportunities in a healthy habitat for the flowers and grasses that naturally grow in this area," explained Owens.

Those native plants increase the wildlife diversity and numbers within the park, he said. Native grasses provide clumps of habitat with space for wildflowers and "highways" for animals to move along, as well as increased numbers of insects like butterflies that depend on specific host plants to lay eggs.

"Good land-management practices are a priority to the DNR, and Panola Mountain staff are dedicated to showcasing Georgia's diverse native habitat," Owens said. "Their goal is to highlight the importance of fire in maintaining a healthy ecosystem."

Those with questions about the upcoming burn are asked to call the park at (770) 389-7801, visit the park's visitor center, at 2600 Ga. Highway 155 in Stockbridge, or visit the park's web site at www.gastateparks.org/PanolaMountain.