Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Why is Cape Fear on fire?

Clear cutting is a widespread development practice, but it destroys habitat and harms people

This is the first in a three-part series on the impact of development in the Cape Fear.

A burn pile in Scott’s Hill in November. (Photo courtesy Dr. Bob Parr)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Lendire Road was burning this week.

The 30-acre blaze ended Friday and was the first of several burns slated near New Hanover County Fire Rescue Station 16.

READ MORE: 233-unit, 112-acre development on Dairy Farm Road proposes removing 1,000 trees

Rather than a special prescribed burn for forest health, this fire cleared the way for building. Ripping out waste vegetation, piling it up and lighting it on fire is common for developers, but critics say it is a health hazard and clear-cutting is a waste of resources.

Open burns, of vastly varying sizes, are frequent as the area rapidly develops. There were more than 10,000 permits issued in the tri-county region last year. Brunswick County, the fastest-growing county in the state, has the most development permitting activity.

On Dec. 13, Alliance for Cape Fear Trees President Connie Parker emailed New Hanover County staff about concerned messages she received in response to a Port City Daily story about a development off Dairy Farm Road slated to take down 1,000 trees, mostly loblolly pines.

She said the comments cited the “seemingly complete lack of appreciation for the environment and ecosystem that exists there and in other developments.”

This began an exchange between NHC County Planning and Land Use Director Rebekah Roth and Parker, during which Roth said the project is preserving part of its area as open space. She added a previous subdivision application for the site proposed removing even more trees.

The land clearing fire at Lendire Road last week. (Courtesy Dr. Bob Parr)

Roger Shew, a geology and environmental science professor at UNCW, spoke up publicly about the impact of development across the river at Leland’s December town council meeting. Up for approval at that meeting was a proposal to annex 2,100 acres, which will likely turn into a massive housing development adjacent to the land his family has owned for generations.

He pointed to past projects that resulted in clear-cutting and burn piles. He conveyed that locals feel betrayed by the promise of well-planned development.

Shew, not alone among environmentalists PCD spoke to, said clear-cut areas lead to “edge effects.” The ecological term refers to the intermingling boundaries of habitats, which can lower the biodiversity of an area. 

He was also critical of mitigation in the form of replanting new trees because they have to establish roots and do not represent the natural tree canopy that was destroyed.

“If you drive down Highway 17, you just see these three, four-story mega buildings, and there’s 10 of them in a location,” Shew said. “It’s to bring in lots of people, so what they do to put in those buildings is clear-cut everything.”

Even in planned developments like Leland’s Magnolia Green, the replanted trees have taken 20 years to reach adult size.

“That’s 20 years of wasted time where you could have had some natural areas already in there,” Shew added.

Kacy Cook, the land conservation biologist who coordinates the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission’s Green Growth Toolbox, confirmed canopy protection is a more-effective method for saving habitat than preserving or planting individual trees.

Another repeated concern about clear-cutting, raised both at the Leland meeting and during a public hearing for a massive solar farm in Pender County in September, is the unintended consequence of increased flooding and soils hydrated to capacity in the absence of thirsty trees.

Burning itself is an issue

Aesthetic, ecological and development practices aside, wood smoke is toxic.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the smoke is a complex mixture of gases and particulate matter. The smoke contains benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and toxic hydrocarbons.

Dr. Bob Parr, a retired emergency and urgent care physician, has taken a particular interest in air quality. He has peppered New Hanover County with air monitors and followed land-clearing burns for years.

Parr said he can see the impact of clear-cutting and burning in the northern part of the county on his monitors. Even without the equipment, he said it’s noticeable when the air quality is poor based on smell alone. 

All the toxins and particulates in wood smoke are a concern, but his monitors look at PM 2.5, a known harmful particulate. According to the EPA, the particulate is the main cause of visual haze. 

Machines at a smolderinb burn pile in Scott’s Hill in 2018. (Courtesy Dr. Bob Parr)

“People that live around there, they’re being exposed to high concentrations of PM 2.5, and the particles are so small, they go down in the deepest part of your lung and cross over the caveolae border into your bloodstream,” Parr said.

Exposure can lead to heart attacks, irregular heart beats, asthma issues, lung disease irritation and premature death in people who already suffer from heart or lung disease.

According to the American Lung Association, about 13.7% of American adults have been diagnosed with chronic lung disease, and according to the CDC, 7.2% have coronary artery disease.

In December, a monitor in Ogden, manufactured by air quality networking company Purple Air, showed the highest concentration of PM 2.5 in the eastern United States, surpassing monitors in Chicago, Detroit, Washington D.C. and Cleveland. The cause for the high concentration was a neighbor burning leaves 300 yards away.

“If you’re in an area that has very high levels of PM 2.5, even for a short period of time, there is exquisite medical literature that shows all kinds of things can happen to you,” Parr said.

The most common symptoms are eye and lung irritation, which a healthy person may shrug off, but someone with asthma or COPD could develop worse symptoms.

In Parr’s professional life, when the federal air quality index in New Hanover would dip, he saw clusters of patients with heart attacks and asthma attacks at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center emergency room.

Parr pointed to research coming out of Research Triangle Park showing even healthy athletes riding bicycles experience cardiac irregularities and inflammation during exposure to PM 2.5.

“For a young person, that’s bad, but for an older person that’s maybe got stents, diabetes, high blood pressure, stuff like that, that can be quite critical,” Parr said.

While the community at large may not be exposed to high levels of particulates when burning happens, adjoining neighborhoods can be.

Parr measured the air 2,300 feet east from the burn off Lendire Road on Jan. 28;  it fell in the EPA’s “very unhealthy” category, indicating it could aggravate heart or lung disease and lead to “premature mortality” in people with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly.

Parr also pointed to a landmark 1993 study, colloquially called the “six cities.” It shows people are less healthy and die sooner when exposed to constant particulate pollution for years. But Parr said in the tri-county area, public health officials should be more focused on acute effects.

“Since the burns are temporary and then spread out all over, I think the chronic effects are inconsequential,” Parr said.

David Howard, who was interviewed for this story while serving as New Hanover County’s health director but now holds the same position in Brunswick County, said it is true wood smoke can be harmful but was not concerned about its long-term impact because the burns are intermittent.

In the case of the Lendire burn, Parr noted there were people walking in the area who could suffer asthma flare-ups and there was no official notice placed in the area to avoid the smoke. Parr questioned the morality of burns because of their impact on the public.

“You invade the public air space with toxic chemicals that, if you are sensitive, can impact your health,” Parr said.

How much damage are we talking about?

How much is being burned and the impact of development on habitat is partially cloaked by a lack of data and tracking efforts.

According to state fire code, large burn piles created for development must be at least 500 feet from occupied buildings and 250 feet from public roads.

The practice is common in areas that allow open burns, including most unincorporated areas controlled by counties and some municipalities. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, burns can range from small fires to get rid of yard waste to commercial land-clearing. As of press, the link to submit a complaint about a burn to the department is broken.

New Hanover County Fire Rescue deputy chief Frank Meyer said the county would have to offer a collection or removal service if it were to not allow burns.

The cleared area off Lendire Road on Friday. To the right and rear of the frame is more forested area. A large housing development lies to the left. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

Wilmington spokesperson Dylan Lee told PCD one of the reasons the city disallows open burns entirely is because they create air quality issues and the fire can threaten buildings in the high-density city.

Leland, the second-largest municipality in Cape Fear, allows burns with a North Carolina Forestry permit, but cautions property owners against the practice because of personal liability.

A review of more than 10,000 open burn permits issued by the North Carolina Forest Service in the Cape Fear in 2022 revealed little about the scope of burns. A few-dozen mention land clearing specifically in supplemental notes, but the majority vaguely describe burning vegetation, the date and location of the burn.

It is impossible to determine how much material is being burned since there is no limit on how much permittees can set fire to; permits only describe burn areas. The area figures vary wildly and often do not represent the actual size of a pile.

Some list improbably large areas for the type of burns described in the permit. For example, one permit for a Brunswick County farm described a burn area of 100 acres, despite only burning common debris like leaves.

By contrast, some permits list zero acres. 

Most of the permits are for small residential burns to clear yard debris.

One Brunswick County permit with a supplemental note, intended for land-clearing, describes a “push up” pile of trees and debris burned on only 0.1 acre.

There is also no attempt to track how many trees are removed. In the case of New Hanover County, its tree ordinance requires developers to list each tree they intend to take down in site plans, but the county does not keep a running tally of how many trees are actually razed.

State departments do not have the resources to quantify habitat loss or perform detailed species inventories as the landscape changes. Cook said, as a rule, development is undertaken to benefit humans. For other animals that live here, it only benefits select species well-adapted to living around humans, such as cardinals and coyotes.

The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program’s mission is to gather information about the state’s rare species and its natural communities. It was one of the players in a December bid to conserve 32-acres in Pender County because it identified it falling in a rare biome; it is the only site in the state known to contain the roughleaf dogwood, among other rare species. 

However, Deputy Director Misty Buchanan said the program simply does not have the resources to perform detailed inventories on local species, though with certainty, she said habitat is declining and impacting wildlife. There are 51 species historically found in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties which have no reported sightings anywhere in the past 20 years, according to heritage program data.

“If NCNHP had funding for more field biologists, we would be able to survey more of these and other rare species to determine whether they are declining or indeed extirpated from North Carolina,” Buchanan wrote in an email.

Cook works with local governments to build effective, voluntary conservation policy, but her program, the Green Growth Toolbox, does not have the resources to track progress or follow up with the municipalities she works with.

“We have witnessed already the cooking of the golden goose,” Coastal Plain Conservation Group Director Andy Wood said. “Now what we’re observing is the scrambling of her last eggs.”

He believes development policy is destroying local ecology. Southeastern North Carolina was the most-diverse place in the coastal plain north of Florida, Wood said, but the natural heritage is “disappearing one dump truck load at a time, and hastily.”

Both Wood and Buchanan pointed to the plight of the area’s most charismatic plant as an example: the Venus flytrap.

The iconic insect eater only grows in the Cape Fear area, in rare low-nutrient, acidic soils which are slowly disappearing.

READ MORE: Why isn’t it illegal when developers destroy Venus Flytraps, and other reader questions

Buchanan said over time the plant’s natural habitat has been converted to human use and there are secondary impacts from developments that change the surrounding landscapes — mainly wetland drainage and fire suppression. Changes in soils occur as a result.

Ironically, she said the ability to use prescribed burns or to allow natural wildfires to burn as a benefit to the ecosystem is becoming less feasible because they are threats to health and the built environment. 

The silver lining for the flytrap is the conservation land in the outer coastal plan and the millions the state, as well as local organizations investing in protecting its habitat.

Parr, for his part, is optimistic as well.

“Things are going to change, they just take a long time,” he said.

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