Wildland fire managers and foresters from 15 installations clustered on a tank trail on Fort Stewart April 5, watching a wall of smoke creep steadily closer as a helicopter droned overhead dropping small plastic balls to ignite a prescribed burn.
Fort Stewart burns more than 115,000 acres annually, making it the premiere prescribed burn installation in the U.S. Army. The forestry professionals from the other installations visited to learn what makes the program here so robust. They also shared insights about their best practices.
The other installations participating in the forestry professional development visit came from as close as Fort Benning and as far away as Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, and Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. Manny Ramirez welcomed the forestry professionals to the installation. He said he was proud to showcase the award-winning environmental program at the Army’s best kept secret on the East Coast. He also told the foresters why what they do matters to the mission side of the installations they work on.
“The largest mission for our Fort Stewart foresters is to ensure that our partners from the 3rd Infantry Division never miss an opportunity to train,” Ramirez said. “Soldier training is the primary focus of this installation. If they don’t have the proper training areas due to wildfires or not protecting the endangered species in the area, then we have failed the 3rd ID’s mission.”
How Fort Stewart conducts prescribed burns is a role model for the entire Army, David Giffin, Installation Management Command’s environmental chief, said. Having the foresters from other installations see Fort Stewart’s best practices to keep the mission to train and deploy Soldiers going while sustaining endangered species and the ecosystem is worth emulating.
“It is the platinum level program and so why not bring everyone from around IMCOM to come here and emulate the success we’ve had at Fort Stewart,” Giffin said.
Fort Stewart Wildland Fire Program Manager Bryan Whitmore explained the helicopter burn process to the gathered forestry experts. The helicopter first maps the burn unit to get the outside boundary. Once mapping is complete, the ignition machine is fired up to drop plastic balls with two chemicals inside to ignite the burn.
“We can cover about 1,000 acres an hour with the helicopter doing aerial ignition,” Whitmore said.
A ground crew would cover only 100 acres in that same time. Whitmore also explained using the helicopter helps with smoke dispersion. Hand lighting takes longer and introduces more chances for the weather and wind to shift. That could push smoke to places that it is unwelcome, like the Savannah International Airport.
“When we light 1,000 acres, within 30 minutes the fires from the ping-pong balls combust simultaneously,” he said. “All that smoke pushes straight up into the atmosphere and the transport winds move that smoke in the direction we want it to go.”
Making sure the weather plays along is critical for a prescribed burn, Whitmore said.
“Every burn unit has a prescription with detailed weather parameters to make sure when we strike the match that the smoke and the fire do what we want it to do,” he said.
Because of that attention to putting fire into the ecosystem, Fort Stewart accounts for 25 percent of the entire Army’s prescribed burn program. Giffin was impressed with the use of the helicopter to ignites burns, praising its efficiency and safety.
“Just the time it took to put that much fire on the landscape the expertise that went into that,” he said. “Just the innovation in contracting that solution. It opened a lot of other installations’ eyes to how you can do it a lot safer, a lot more efficiently. To have that demonstrated the way it was and have all the army foresters looking at that, I think it’s going to be something you’ll see emulated across IMCOM in the coming years.”
For Ryan Mansfield, the timber sales forester at JBLM, was most impressed with the relationships the Fort Stewart forestry branch has with on-post partners like range control and fish and wildlife.
“Everything seems to be running smoothly down here,” Mansfield said.
Mansfield was also impressed with the volume of burns Fort Stewart conducts in a year; JBLM burns only two to three thousand acres in a year.
“We generally don’t burn anything over 100 acres in a day,” he said. “They’re burning 1,000 acres down here in the south. I think a lot of that is smoke management issues. A lot of that is the culture. Prescribed burning is more accepted in the South. It’s part of the ecosystem down here.
“It’s just neat seeing the different forest types and ecosystems.”
James Parker, chief of natural resources at Fort Benning, said the woodland managers at Fort Stewart are passionate about their work and know what they are doing. He was impressed with using a helicopter to ignite prescribed burns, noting no one installation burns the same. At Fort Benning, fire technicians using drip torches riding ATVs is the primary means of ignition.
“Every installation does things a little different,” Parker said. “We’re located across the country. Different landscape. Different terrain. At Benning we use what works best for us.”
Jeff Mangun, Fort Stewart forestry branch chief, said the gathering was a lot of fun because it gave everyone in the career field a chance to network again. The last time the foresters gathered was about four years ago. The networking aspect is the best thing of the visit.
“I might be close to an expert at one particular thing but know nothing about something and they’re the expert in that,” Mangun said. “It’s just great learning a lot.”
Equipment acquisition is something that Mangun learned from his peers he plans to implement here, especially with the DoD’s shift to electric vehicles. The takeaways for his peers were more in fire and forestry management tactics.
“I think they’re learning a lot about how to make things happen in the field, how to conduct forest management,” he said. “We love sharing information.”
The prescribed burn season at Fort Stewart runs Dec. 1 to June 30. Burning is conducted to promote a safe environment for military training and live fire exercises. Live fire training can spark wildfires, Whitmore said.
“We preemptively burn these areas to reduce the fuel loading which will limit the chance of a wildfire igniting,” he said.
Editor's note: Molly Cooke, Fort Stewart Public Affairs Office, contributed to this article.