RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – If you were traveling around west Raleigh around lunchtime Thursday, you might have seen smoke billowing from a wildfire.  

A section of the Prairie Ridge Ecosystem near Reedy Creek Road went from a few small flames to a raging inferno in just minutes.

However, it was all part of the plan, according to Erin Apple who works at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She led Thursday’s burn.  

“This prairie environment needs fire in order to be a healthy ecosystem. So, fire needs to pass through regularly, and we can’t let it happen naturally, say by lightning or other things, so we have to come out here on good weather days, like today, and burn it ourselves.”

So these firefighters are preventing an uncontrolled wildfire in Raleigh by causing a controlled burn.  They do this about once a year.

Apple says, “the thing that is different about this is because we are in an urban area it is visible. Most of the time, when you’re in central and eastern North Carolina, burns are happening all the time. They’re just out in backcountry areas.”

Controlled burning is used to help the environment. Apple says, “if we let this go, it would simply grow up into forest or it would be over run with weeds and other things that would crowd out some of our more important native plants.”

After the fire was just ten to fifteen minutes old, it was amazing as to how much burned so quickly.  What looks like devastation now, is the beginning of regrowth of the prairie. 

Bonnie Earmick who runs the Prairie Ridge Station says, “the prairie grass has really deep roots and that’s how they can sustain some of this burning, it can grow back very quickly.”

Earmick says the grass will start growing back in just a couple weeks, but what about any animals?  Were they in danger?  Earmick says not the animals that burrow underground. “The fire goes pretty quickly, so those animals can actually hunker down, it’ll go right over them, and that’s fine.  Other things like rabbits, that you see, will flee and they’re fast enough, that they can get out.”

But where will the rabbits find a new home?

“There’s plenty of prairie, and we have woods. They’ll have plenty of shelter in the meantime, and it won’t be very long,” says Earmick.

A total of 7.5 acres were burned on Thursday during two separate fires. The museum usually burns the prairie during the late winter before animals and plants are more active.