FORT HOOD, Texas - Armed with a drip torch, Caleb Thyer, senior firefighter and forestry technician with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ignited a fire in training area 51 here.
In a week's time, USFWS, in coordination with the installation’s Directorate of Public Works and Integrated Training Area Management program, burned more than 1,700 acres.
Prescribed burns are an essential part of Fort Hood’s mission readiness and biodiversity. The common types of burns include broadcast burning in training and live-fire areas and pile burning of woody vegetation.
Fort Hood’s prairie lands have been encroached by juniper woodland caused by decades of fire suppression. Juniper is the same plant that causes cedar allergies.
“Fire suppression has allowed juniper to progress the landscape at a phenomenal rate,” Carl Schwope, fire management officer, USFWS, said. “Other native vegetation is fire adaptive, and need fire in some way. Fire doesn’t allow any one plant to become dominant and creates more diversity.”
“The ecological benefit resets the fuel loads, manages for invasive species and promotes new growth with the desired species that are native and fire adaptive,” Thyer said. “If you don’t ever burn an area, the woody species will start to invade the prairies. Over time, prairies will turn into woodlands. We are trying to keep it grass and keep it open.”
Virginia Sanders, prescribed burn fire manager, DPW, further explained the benefits include ecosystem management, improved maneuver space for military training and reduced wildfire risk.
“We burn about 10% of the training lands every year,” she said. “Our efforts help to improve the grasslands, reduce the risk of wildfire to the Golden-cheeked warbler habitat and provide open areas for military training.”
Maintaining open training areas is an integral component of ITAM’s program to provide maneuver land capability and support mission readiness.
“ITAM is here to make sure the land can support the training,” Marion Noble, ITAM program coordinator with Range Operations, said. “When we cut down woody vegetation, it opens up the training areas, increases the training acres and improves the accessibility and availability of training land.”
Noble explained vegetation management is a coordinated effort between the contractors, DPW Natural Resources and USFWS, which clears an average of about 3,000 acres of training lands per year.
In fiscal year 2021, accessible training lands allowed for 14,569 events to be conducted and 389,357 personnel trained.
Schwope added that prescribed fires promote training on Fort Hood and reduces the amount of downtime from wildfires.
“If we can keep the range healthy from an ecological standpoint, then there are less challenges with invasive species and it keeps training areas operating more,” he said.
Sanders added that wildfires are an inherent part of military training.
“By doing prescribed burning, we don’t completely get rid of that risk but we help to reduce the intensity and severity to make those wildfires more manageable,” she said.
Schwope and his team examine weather, environmental and fuel conditions for each burn such as wind, humidity, temperature, atmospheric stability and fuel moisture along with ongoing military training and proximity of boundaries to Fort Hood.
“Sometimes you can forecast a week out, but the morning of is the final determination,” Schwope said. “You can’t commit to a burn five days out.”
Smoke impact is a top concern that the prescribed fire team tries to minimize.
“Controlling the fire is the easy part, but once the smoke goes up, it’s no longer in our control. Sometimes there are components with the weather and fuel and the smoke doesn’t do what we thought it would do,” Schwope said. “We do understand that smoke has impact to people, and we work to try to reduce that impact.”