The Bayonet

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012

Fighting fire with fire: Prescribed burns help environment, control wildfires

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A wildfire and a prescribed burn may look similar from a distance, but one is uncontrolled nature while the other is intentional science.

“A prescribed burn is a planned event where we’ve monitored the weather, the conditions, and everything is perfect to conduct a burn and to manage smoke,” said James Parker, chief of the Land Management Branch. “A wildfire is an unplanned event. On Fort Benning, that can happen from a military training exercise; it can happen from someone throwing out a cigarette; it can happen from a lightning strike.”

Beginning next month, the Directorate of Public Works’ Environmental Management Division will again step up to take control of wildfires with the preventative measure of prescribed burning in post training areas.

An annual event usually covering about 50 days per year, Parker said, the controlled burns serve five main purposes:

• reducing fuel sources for wildfires

• preserving the longleaf pine forests

• managing the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker habitat

• controlling vegetation in the understory, and

• maintaining land for military training.

Before controlled burning began on post in 1985, there were an average of 600 wildfires annually. Now, that number is down to less than 100 each year, Parker said.

“The more burning we do, the less wildfires we have,” he said.

Parker can’t say when their first day of controlled burning will be. It depends on factors like rain, humidity, wind and smoke dispersion, the latter being particularly important because it determines whether or not smoke will reach housing areas and other public places — something the branch wants to avoid, he said.

“Smoke management is based off several things,” Parker said. “Wind, weather parameters and atmospheric conditions affect smoke dispersion. The smoke dispersion index tells us how well and how quickly our smoke will be dispersed into the atmosphere. We conduct burns on days when smoke is unlikely to reach sensitive areas such as housing, surrounding neighborhoods and highways.”

The size and path of the fire, once ignited, is controlled through the use of firebreaks.

“Firebreaks are basically a trail or a road on Fort Benning we use to stop wildfires,” Parker said. “We keep pine needles and leaves off of it, so there’s nothing to burn there. There’s no fuel on that firebreak, so it cuts off the fire.”

Fort Benning isn’t the only one doing prescribed burns. It’s a common practice for other government organizations, companies and private individuals who own land. It’s particularly prevalent in the Southeast, where longleaf pine once covered 90 million acres and now, due to deforestation, comprises only 3 million.

Because the fire-dependent longleaf pine, which covers much of the installation, is home to the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, Fort Benning is required to conduct regular burns and report on it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Parker said.

“This year we have 42,300 acres planned for prescribed burning, primarily from November through May,” he said.

Not every area on Fort Benning is burned every year, but each section is on a rotation of one to three years, depending on that ecosystem’s needs. On average, 35,000 to 40,000 acres of upland pine habitat are burned every year, Parker said.

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