Starting a fire intentionally isn't always a bad thing.
Fort Jackson uses controlled burns to help its wildlife conservation efforts and to reduce the severity and chances of wildfires occurring.
Each year, Fort Jackson conducts controlled burns between November and July and covers an average of 12,000-15,000 acres over 70-80 days.
Prescribed, or controlled, burning is the skilled application of fire under planned weather and fuel conditions to achieve specific forest and land management objectives. Controlled burning is an ancient practice, notably used by Native Americans for crop management, insect and pest control, and hunting habitat improvement, among other purposes.
"The main reason we burn is to support the military training mission that provides the world's best Soldiers," said Ian Smith, Fort Jackson Forestry Branch fire management officer. "Our job particularly is to take care of the land they train on and make it easier for them to maneuver and helps for visibility during training exercises as they move through the woods,"
"This land has lasted for more than 100 years as a training place for Soldiers and it needs to last at least another 100 years more," so it needs to be managed, Smith added.
There are many other reasons why it is a good idea to burn. One that comes to mind for most people is to lessen the threat of wildfires. "We do this to mitigate risk of wildfire to the community and to the Soldiers because the more we burn, the less wildfires we have," Smith said.
Another reason is wildlife management.
"Fire is a natural part of our ecosystem here on Fort Jackson and it helps to control undesirable vegetation and promote native, warm season grasses and other things that are really beneficial to our wildlife," said Travis Dodson, a Fort Jackson wildlife biologist. "In this long leaf pine ecosystem, it is a vital part of how we manage wildlife such as quail and wild turkeys and really anything animal that feeds on the forest floor."
In the spring after the burns, new vegetation grows.
"If we didn't conduct controlled burns, our nesting habit would be less desirable and it helps provide a food source for all our wildlife," Dodson said.
Dodson said the quail count has been down across the Southeastern United States for many years, but it is improving on Fort Jackson.
"In the last seven to eight years, we were down to hearing five quail calls on our yearly survey," Dodson said. "This past year, we heard 42 calls on our census route which is the highest we have heard since 1991."
"It is also good for threatened and endangered species and species of concern and quail and turkeys because they evolved in this habitat and with fire," Smith said.
It is the most ecologically sound for the endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and Fort Jackson also has "two endangered plants and others plants that are fire dependent such as picture plants and tooth ache grass that if they don't have fire, they will not persist," Smith added.
Planning is essential before a controlled burn is ignited -- where and when to burn is a carefully designed process.
"Every year, I make a forestry burn plan with input from Range Control, (Integrated Training Area Management) and Forestry," Smith said.
There are a lot of criterial pieces that go into it, such as acreage, how many times it has been burned and how critical the land is to the mission of the Army, to mitigate risk of wildfires, he said.
We come up with a plan and then look at the weather, what category day it is as far as smoke management and we decide where to burn and how much we want to burn, he said.
Planning continues to throughout the whole process.
Smith said, "One of the things that leaves Fort Jackson and impacts people outside is the smoke," so the team is always careful about which way the wind is blowing. Protocol states to never blow smoke over a road, so sometimes they have to change their plan of where to burn after they conduct a test burn.
"We take great pains to ensure the smoke does not impact the community," Smith said.