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Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012

Benning fights fire with fire: Prescribed burns continue

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As warmer months approach, the Environmental Management Division’s Land Management Branch is again using controlled blazes to get a step on the uncontrollable variety.

The Fort Benning agency is in the midst of its annual round of prescribed burns in post training areas.

Lead forester Stephen Hudson said they’re needed to maintain longleaf pine forests, control vegetation in the understory and reduce fuel sources for potentially dangerous wildfires. It’s also an important measure in managing endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker habitat.

“Burning is a key tool to all of it,” he said. “With our burn schedule, we try to dot the installation landscape and spread the fuel loads around all of Fort Benning. That’s our main objective. … Let’s not wait for these massive wildfire events. Let’s be proactive.”

In 1985, when controlled burns began across post, there were almost 600 wildfires a year on Fort Benning, which threatened safety and led to various asset losses, Hudson said. Today, less than 100 break out annually.

“We really changed the threshold,” he said. “We’ve put smoke and fire management in our hands. We use prevailing winds and weather to our advantage rather than having to face an uncontrolled situation with fire.

“Fort Benning is going to burn, whether it is controlled or not. By proactively managing fires and fuel loads with prescribed burning, it’s a win-win for our neighbors and Fort Benning.”

On average, the installation’s training areas are burned every two to three years, totaling about 30,000 acres annually, he said. Roughly 80 percent of the prescribed burns on Fort Benning occur from December through May, and the Land Management Branch has burned more than 13,000 acres so far during this campaign.

Hudson said weather parameters dictate the entire plan of attack. Rainfall has been significant in 2012 — humidity, wind speed and direction are other variables that must be tracked daily before conducting a burn.

“We average about 65 burn days a year, and we have a lot to accomplish,” he said. “These fires promote a healthy ecosystem and healthy forests. It also facilitates and complements Fort Benning’s mission. … They work real well in sustaining our training lands.”

Smoke dispersion, the direction it gets blown and residual effects are the biggest concerns when planning for burns, Hudson said. Officials always work to prevent smoke from reaching Main Post, military housing areas and communities around Fort Benning.

“There’s an art and science to it,” he said. “We try to minimize the impacts to the local surrounding communities.”

Brian Waldrep, another lead forester, said the Land Management Branch issues notifications whenever controlled burns are scheduled, indicating where they’ll take place and the forecasted wind direction. However, Fort Benning is hardly the only entity engaged in this practice — on any given day, numerous private individuals, companies and state agencies in Georgia and Alabama might also be carrying out burns, he said.

On March 6, more than 700 permits were granted in Georgia to burn about 35,000 acres. The state stamped nearly 600 permits the following day for another 30,000 acres.

“It’s a fairly common practice throughout the Southeast,” Waldrep said. “But these states and individuals don’t necessarily coordinate with each other or alert anybody about their burns, which can add to smoke levels and plume sizes in our area.”

Land Management Branch chief James Parker said Fort Benning spends about $500,000 a year on prescribed burns, which covers supplies, equipment and firebreak maintenance, and labor.

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