Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Somewhat more than the usual amount of smoke will be seen in the skies above Fort Benning these days as environmental crews look to catch up on burning forest acreage they couldn't get to when the normal burn schedule was shut down last year because of COVID-19.
The expertly controlled fires, done in keeping with federal environmental requirements, are known as prescribed burns.
At Fort Benning and elsewhere in the Southeast region, they're mainly though not exclusively done from December through May, when weather patterns are most favorable.
But Fort Benning halted prescribed burns starting in March 2020, as did other federal agencies, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic when respiratory health was of particular concern, said James Parker, chief of the Natural Resources Management Branch, part of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning's Directorate of Public Works (DPW).
Fort Benning resumed prescribed burns in January.
Halting the burns last year has meant the number of acres that now need burning has increased by a third, and the amount of "litter layer" on the forest floor – pine needles and cones, leaves, dead branches as well as underbrush – to accumulate to about an extra year's worth, Parker said.
"We're basically picking up what was not burned last year also, so, majority of what we're burning this year has another growing season of fuel, of leaf and of leaf litter and pine needles out there that we have to burn this year, that would've not been there if we'd burned last year," he said.
And because within the December to May burn season there are typically only 50 to 60 days when weather conditions are favorable for burning, the crews have much to burn and not much time to do it, he said.
Fort Benning's goal for this year is to burn 110,028 acres, he said. As of March 24, that burning was nearly 42 percent complete, with 45,941 acres burned, leaving 64,087 still to be burned, Parker said.
"This year it's gonna be more smoke in the air because we have so much more to burn," he said.
The burns are carried out because build-up of forest debris can lead to catastrophic fires like those seen in the Western United States, and in Georgia and Florida in 2007, said Parker.
But prescribed burns consume the debris so that if a wildfire did get going there'd be less fuel for it to feed on, which also makes such fires easier to control and suppress, he said.
To prevent to the extent possible smoke drifting beyond Fort Benning, experts here make meticulous daily assessments of weather patterns and related data.
They check wind direction, surface wind speed, humidity, and numerous other factors, including smoke dispersion – how quickly smoke will move out of the area.
"We like for it to get up and get out, we don't like for it to travel along the ground great distances and then get up and get out," Parker said.
Also each morning they check schedules to see which parcels of acreage that are slated for a prescribed burn are being used that day for military training, he said.
"We look at that land that's available to us throughout the installation," said Parker. "Then we compare it to the weather parameters – mainly, where is the wind blowing?
"Not just during the day but at night," he said. "And what are the conditions? Because we have to plan for where the smoke goes."
All this helps them gauge whether burning at a given day and time meets their checklist of requirements, or whether to hold off and wait until conditions turn favorable.
"And some days, because military training has land locked up, and with the specific weather parameters, we may not be able to burn that day," Parker said. "Because the wind, or dispersion, does not agree with the smoke management requirements that we follow on the installation and it will cause a smoke management concern for residents," whether on Fort Benning or outside the post.
"So if it doesn't meet those guidelines, we don't do it," he said. "We screen every burn we have off the set of guidelines to do our best to keep smoke away from everybody.
"The primary goal is not to smoke anyone out, in populated areas on or off post," said Parker, "so we look at that and then we can either make a determination we can burn, or cannot burn, that day."
Members of the public who want to be notified of Fort Benning's prescribed burns, as well as weapons-firing schedules, can send an email address to: email@example.com.
Additional information on Fort Benning's prescribed burning can be found online at its "Smoke and Sound" webpage.