Controlled burns help environment, wildlife
April 21, 2011
Thick clouds of smoke have been seen over Fort Rucker at various times during the last several weeks, but it's nothing to be alarmed over, installation Forestry Officials said.
The series of controlled burns is meant to help clear away possible hazards that could pose a more serious threat if left unchecked, said Casey Newton, Fort Rucker installation forester.
"In the past 30 years there haven't been many prescribed fires," he said. "In 2006 when the (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school was implemented here, there was a need to do more on the ground forestry management."
Newton said the fires are meant to mimic what happens naturally, but on a more regular basis. Every three to four years, a controlled burn is applied to certain areas to keep the ecosystem healthier.
"Typically, we try to start burning in November, but the past couple of years have been really wet," he said. "We try to be finished by March, but we will burn sporadically in April. It will make the areas more manageable and sustainable."
Newton said some of the areas that had been without regular burning for around 30 years had become wildfire hazards. The controlled burns are meant to correct that problem, as well.
"When we got into those areas we saw where several of the SERE students had made fires and that could be a real problem if those fires were to catch something else on fire," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can to avoid wildfires, which can get out of control very quickly."
Burning away the dead and dying brush also adds nutrients back into the top soil and promotes a healthier growing environment, Newton added. This can be good for local wildlife in addition to the prevention of wildfire.
"We have a lot of turkeys on post and they don't like to go into areas where they can't see," he said. "By clearing out a lot of this debris, it can entice them to move into some of these areas."
Recently, some scheduled burns were postponed due to changes in wind direction, Newton added. The reason for this is because the excess smoke can cause problems for those living and working on the installation.
"We try to burn into the wind and make sure the smoke goes away from roads and populated areas," he said. "It's important that we don't smoke out an area and make it hard for motorists to see what's in front of them."
Dan Spillers, Fort Rucker Natural Resources fish and wildlife biologist, said the controlled burns do sometimes destroy some wildlife, but they also promote healthy growth of many species living here.
"Most of the wildlife we have here has adapted naturally to fire because it's part of their ecosystem," he said. "There might be an individual or two that are destroyed, but the benefits far outweigh the damage done. Most can get away from the fire, though."
One species that is being considered for inclusion on the protected species list is the gopher tortoise, found in various places in the Wiregrass area.
Spillers said the tortoises have adapted to fire and usually burrow into the soil to protect themselves during a burn.
"If you have a wildfire, it's more intense and can be damaging to the wildlife and overall environment," he said. "Usually wildfires roll through areas that have not had prescribed fire in many years."