With embers still smoldering from controlled burns this week, Fort Benning officials said the post is on track to burn some 30,000 acres this year to reduce wildfires.
Controlled burning, similar to fires the post conducted on Monday and Tuesday, plays an important role in preventing hundreds of wildfires and helps to manage longleaf pines and habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Since the controlled burn program started, the post has gone from 600 wildfires per year to less than 100 fires, Stephen Hudson, lead forester with the Land Management Branch at Fort Benning, said Wednesday.
“The more acres we see with controlled burns, the less occurrence we have,” he said of wildfires. “To date, we are below 100 wildfire occurrences a year.”
From December through May, officials will burn 80 percent of acres targeted for controlled burning. The Land Management Branch burned 400 acres on Tuesday in a wooded area off Hourglass Road.
To protect people in sensitive areas such as roads, schools and other populated regions, Hudson said officials used weather reports, wind projection and other factors before the controlled burn is ignited.
“We average about 65 burn days,” Hudson said. “We take advantage of prevailing winds, weather and all those things. We try our best to keep smoke away from those sensitive areas.”
Tuesday projections were a little off and some smoke ended up in downtown Columbus. Burning on Hourglass Road was combined with a land owner in south Russell County burning a larger tract.
“We went off weather predictions and missed it a little bit,” Hudson said.
To get a glimpse of how controlled burning helps manage healthy forests, Hudson pointed to an area off 1st Division Road where a controlled burn was held Feb. 13. More than two weeks later, green grass is shooting out of the ground amid towering longleaf pines.
Across the road, Hudson noted an area that’s fully grown after it was burned last March.
“Longleafs don’t like competition from other plants,” Hudson said. “They like to poke their heads up. We are promoting that regeneration of those trees. The longleaf is the most disease tolerant, fire tolerant and again it is a good match for the military mission.”
Some towering pine trees are in the middle of training areas for soldiers. To alert soldiers of the red-cockaded woodpecker, signs are posted and two white bands are painted near the base of the trees.
When the longleafs are young, it’s important the trees don’t have to compete with hardwoods, said John Brent, chief of the Environmental Management Division on post.
“If you have a plant growing with longleaf, they compete for water and nutrients,” he said. “By removing the hardwoods, there is less competition. When longleafs are small, it’s very difficult for them to compete with those other plants.”
As longleafs get older, Brent said they can survive much longer than most of native hardwoods that are in this area.
In addition to controlled burns to manage wildfires, Brent said his division has been replanting 1,000 to 1,500 acres with longleaf seedlings each year.
“Sometime we have some burns and sometime we have to prepare the soil by disturbing it a little bit, then put the seedlings in,” Brent said.
A key element of the longleaf is that it requires fire to grow, survive and regenerate.
“A regulated burning allows us to make sure the fire hazards are reduced,” he said. “Control burns are important because over the years, if we don’t burn these areas, a fuel load will increase. Then when you do have a fire, it’s a catastrophe fire like Okefenokee swamp. That is what we don’t want.”
Forest management through control burning is good for everybody.
“Using that proactive approach and keeping fuel loads down, it is a win, win for everybody,” Hudson said.