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Army plays safely with fire
Prescribed burns aim to help forest
torch 3
A forestry branch fire technician lights a prescribed burn Wednesday on Fort Stewart using a terra torch. Fort Stewart’s Natural Resources Management Unit conducts prescribed burns from Dec. 1 through mid-June. - photo by Photo by Denise Etheridge
Fire, if controlled, can be a source of natural renewal rather than a destructive force. Fort Stewart foresters value this concept and use prescribed burns on the installation’s vast and densely wooded range to prep soldiers’ training grounds and reduce the risk of wildfire.
Controlled burns also help with conservation efforts on post, particularly in protecting the red-cockaded woodpecker, according to the installation’s Natural Resources Management Unit. Fort Stewart is home to five endangered species including the Red-cockaded woodpecker.
Prescribed burns clear the forest of underbrush that can fuel wildfires and improve visibility for soldiers who often train in thick longleaf pine woods, said Fire Management Supervisor Tony Rubine.
“We used to average 700 wildfires a year, now we average 60,” Rubine said. “This decrease is due to our aggressive controlled burn program.”
The fire management supervisor said prescribed burns also help revitalize the area’s longleaf pine and wiregrass populations.
“The longleaf is a fire-dependent species,” Rubine said.
Prescribed burns can help limit longleaf pine diseases such as brown-spot needle blight, a fungus, and help rid the trees of such pests as red-headed sawflies, he said.
The controlled burn program is considered a key element in Fort Stewart’s winning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2009 Military Conservation Partner Award, say post biologists and foresters. The award, in the form of a handsome sculpted eagle, was accepted by Fort Stewart’s Fish and Wildlife Branch Chief Tim Beaty late last month in Baltimore, Md.
The installation’s burn program is one of the largest prescribed burn programs in the United States practiced on one contiguous land ownership, Rubine said. Fort Stewart’s burn season is from Dec. 1 to the end of May or mid-June each year, he said. Designated areas are burned on two to three-year cycles, the fire management supervisor said.
Prescribed burns are carefully planned and executed, with safety playing a lead role, fire planner David Pope said.
Pope said it’s his job to conduct safe burns. He said he takes full responsibility for smoke generated by prescribed burns but added he and his team do their best to minimize the smoke’s impact on communities that surround Fort Stewart. Cities and counties that border the installation are informed when prescribed burns take place, he said.
“We don’t hide it,” Pope said.
Pope, Rubine and Fire Operations team leader Bob Tanner meet with fire team leaders the morning before controlled burns are set. They discuss weather, wind, humidity and other conditions.
On Wednesday, the post forestry branch planned prescribed burns for a 756-acre area on the range that was previously burned April 30, 2008, and a 476-acre section of forest that was previously burned March 19, 2008.
Pope said Wednesday’s prescribed burns were scheduled 10 days before they were set, and planning is continuous until the day of the burn because weather conditions change constantly.
The fire planner said there are five remote automated weather stations (RAWS) on Fort Stewart that collect forecast data.
“That gives us a specific point of what the weather is doing right now,” he said.
Rubine said fire teams usually consist of four to five people, but the more complex the burn the more team members would manage a prescribed burn.
“We usually have five people on the ground,” he said. “Two are engineer equipment operators, two are fire techs and one is the burn boss.”
Fire techs light prescribed burns using a terra torch that spouts a stream of flaming gel like a garden hose would spout water. A helicopter is also used to drop tiny ping-pong balls filled with a flammable mixture of potassium permanganate and ethyl glycol, Tanner explained. These little fire starters are dropped from the helicopter to help ignite burns over large areas, he said.
In addition to safely starting prescribed burns, these controlled fires must be contained within a designated parcel.  Creeks and tank trails on the range serve as fire breaks, Rubine said.
Team members also remain in constant communication with one another by radio, the fire management supervisor said.
“We want to be safe out here,” Rubine said. “We’re playing with fire — literally.”
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