By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsFebruary 6, 2020
The Fort Knox Natural Resources Branch team is just waiting on the weather; the forecast for the next week includes rain, snow, and then more rain.
According to branch Chief and wildlife biologist Mike Brandenburg, this year's first prescribed fire burn season is expected to begin in mid-February and run through the end of March or beginning of April. However, rain has a big say in when, and if, they conduct burns at the installation.
"Last year was just so wet," said Brandenburg. "It's one of those dichotomies with Kentucky; you're either drowning in June -- we had the second wettest June in record last year -- or you're suffering drought conditions -- afterward we had the driest conditions since probably around 2012."
Other factors include wind speeds and direction, temperatures, relative humidity, fuel loads, species types, smoke dissipation and burn locations before the decision is made to go in.
"Our goal is to not let our smoke or our burns negatively affect the surrounding communities," said Brandenburg. "There's no reason for anyone to be concerned about safety."
To this end, he has protocols in place to notify key personnel in Hardin, Bullitt and Meade counties whenever they burn in areas near those locations. On post, they typically have fire department personnel participate to assist in managing fires, as well as posting signs on nearby affected roads to alert motorists driving through.
They monitor each fire in real time and only conduct fires under small timeframes, typically during an afternoon, to minimize any effects of drifting smoke.
He explained they burn at various locations for various effects, whether near the airfield or within the range and training areas. This year is no different.
"We will be burning on the south side, on the north side; it amounts to various acreages and various units, depending on the various weather conditions and how we get to them on which days," said Brandenburg.
Brandenburg said the determination of where, when and whether they return to a site depends on the needs of that site, the kinds of vegetation growing on it, and the effects of previous burns.
"We have burn areas that we may return to," said Brandenburg. "If we're burning to maintain open early successional habitats, grasslands, old field type habitats, if you don't burn those every two to three years, maybe even as much as four depending on the goal for that site, then it becomes a forest."
Another big factor, one that sometimes catches them off guard, involves units training in the area.
"They're the wildcard. We'll get the right conditions to conduct a burn and there will be a unit in the area -- military training is why we are here and has the priority, so we don't go there," said Brandenburg. "We've had this happen numerous times."
According to Brandenburg, prescribed burns provide great value to the soil as well as promotion of foliage growth and ultimate safety to those living in the area.
"Burning is a disturbance factor, the same as mowing or disking; it sets the succession of an area back and maintains it," said Brandenburg. "You get much more diverse ecosystems by doing that. You can mow the area and it will help some and change the ecosystem to an extent; you can disk it and that will change it to an extent; but the specific set of conditions that you get from the effect of fire on a specific piece of ground, and its response, is fairly unique.
"There's no other management tool that you can use to get that."