FORT GORDON, GA (March 9, 2017) -- There is an explanation for smoke occasionally seen hovering over the Central Savannah River Area's skies, and understanding it should help put the community ease.

Fort Gordon's Wildland Fire Team is one of several agencies that conducts controlled, prescribed burns throughout the year.

Allen Braswell, installation forester and wildland fire manager, Natural Resources Branch, Directorate of Public Works, defined prescribed burns as "a fire that we put in the woods under a prescribed set of weather conditions and other factors to meet a prescription for a task we're trying to accomplish in the woods, such as reducing fuels."

Braswell said that reducing fuels is the most important objective of prescribed burns. By reducing fuels, controlled burns reduce the risk of a wildfire breaking out in military training areas that are inherently a fire risk.

"From a safety concern, the No. 1 thing is that the fuel loads would build up so that if there was a wildfire, it would be a lot harder to control," Braswell said. "Us burning this stuff and reducing the fuel lowers that risk that if we have a wildfire that it will turn into a catastrophic wildfire."

Prescribed burns -- specifically here -- are also vital for ecosystem and habitat management. Fort Gordon is home to two of the world's endangered species: the red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise. Both species thrive in a longleaf pine ecosystem, which is a fire-dependent system and among the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Plants associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem are fire-dependent as well. And with only 3 million of the continent's original 90 million acres remaining today, Fort Gordon's prescribed burns have an important role in sustaining it.

"If you take fire out of that system, it will be taken over by other species that are not fire-dependent, and eventually those systems will start to die out."

Another reason for prescribed burns is to control insect and plant-borne diseases, such as spotted fever and Lyme disease, which can be carried by ticks.

Prescribed burns require a lot of planning and are almost entirely weather-dependent, making it impossible for officials to warn the community of them far in advance. Braswell and his team use three weather sources: Georgia Forestry Commission, the National Weather Service out of South Carolina, and a local weather forecast. From there, they determine if they can safely burn, taking winds into consideration, and where to burn. And they try to limit the effects it could have on the community.

"There's a whole lot more to it than just throwing a match down," said Beatmon Crosby, forestry (wildland fire) technician, Natural Resources Branch, DPW. "We try to move it around to where it goes different directions so we aren't putting smoke on the same people, and we try not to burn more than three days in a row."

And if it seems like smoke from a prescribed burn is more widespread on a particular day, it could be that the burn's origin is not Fort Gordon. The U.S. Forest Service conducts prescribed burns at locations including Savannah River Site and Sumter National Forest. It could also be coming from private property owners.

"If it's a good day to burn for us, it's a good day to burn for everybody, so you might have five or 30 different people burning," Crosby said.

And more often than not, they all have similar objectives.

"We're not out to kill all the trees," Crosby said. "That's not our objective. We want to reduce the fuel to keep all the trees, and then in growing season, we'll take care of the unwanted trees."