Fort Benning is on track to burn 36,877 acres with prescribed burns to reduce the threat of wildfires, an official said.
James Parker, chief of the Land Management Branch at the post, said prescribed burning reduces the threat of hundreds of wildfires each year. Parker was guest speaker Saturday for the "Fire in the Forest" lecture for visitors at the Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center on South Lumpkin Road.
In 1985, about 30,000 acres burned on the post from 600 wildfires when the post wasn't conducting prescribed burns. The burning schedule, which runs through the end of May, has greatly reduced that number to 100 to 120 wildfires a year.
"It's a large number, but they are not that big," Parker said of the wildfires. "They are small, and we can usually contain them."
In addition to reducing wildfires, Parker said the burns help maintain the ecosystem for the Longleaf pines, which are a habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The bird likes the open park-like areas with Longleaf pines to build a nest. The fire maintains the low density underbrush near the trees and reduces the fuel for wildfires.
On a given day, Parker said his staff will burn 200 acres. Trainers on post love the burns because they keep the training areas open. The fires also create a lasting food source for wild game like turkeys, squirrels and other animals.
"When you burn something, it looks like asphalt, but within two weeks, it's the prettiest green site you've ever seen," Parker said. "It just seems to work together. That is the main reason Benning burns."
Animals seem to know when a prescribed burn is about to occur, Parker said. "When we light that thing, you don't just light it at one time, you phase it in," he said. "The animals know what is coming. They sense it. They have time to move away."
Some animals and birds have found a way to get a meal out of the burns. Parker said he has seen hawks trailing a fire looking for mice trying to escape the flames. Wild turkeys also have been seen near the edge looking for grasshoppers.
"They are eating it," Parker said. "Instead of running from it, it draws some animals to it. They have a nice quick lunch."
With a budget of about $1.5 million, Parker said his department spends $400,000 to $500,000 a year on the prescribed burns. It takes trucks, bulldozers, all-terrain vehicles and other equipment to conduct the burns.
Matt Young, a forest technician for almost 10 years at the post, said a 7.5 gallon tank with diesel fuel and gasoline on an ATV is used to light the fires. The front of the vehicle is equipped with a pressurized water tank in case a fire gets out of control.
The fires are not the biggest hazard in the forest, Young said. Technicians have to look out for razor wire, dead trees and gullies. Dead trees are a threat to fall at anytime.
Smoke also can cause problems for motorists. "If there is smoke on the road, there may be a car going around the burn," he said. "If they don't see you and you don't see them, it can be a problem."
Parker and his crew were going to ignite five acres near Oxbow Meadows but the gusting winds wouldn't allow it. The burn will be rescheduled.
"Mother nature determines that," he said.