A helicopter roars in just above tree top level in Fort Stewart’s training area near Glennville Feb. 8, a Public Works Forestry Branch burn technician strapped into the open door. He operates a hopper dropping a chemical filled ping pong ball every half acre to start one small fire that will join others to create a bigger blaze.
Above the firestarter helicopter, another helicopter is a small dot hovering high in the sky, tracking how the flames race together. Even higher, above that helicopter, a fixed-wing plane is circling, its scientific eyes focused on the plume of smoke rising above Fort Stewart’s long-leaf pines.
All three aircraft, plus a contingent of more than 100 wildland fire management professionals and scientists on the ground with research tools, are part of the Integrated Research Management Team, a collaborative effort between the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Defense, and various wildland fire research and educational intuitions—some as far away as Spain—coming to Fort Stewart to study its prescribed burn program.
James Furman, the U.S. Forest Service’s liaison to the Department of Defense’s wildland fire management program, said the research at Fort Stewart is important for helping wildland fire experts across the nation learn more about smoke and fire behavior from a program that is a recognized nationwide expert.
“There’s a big push nationwide, due to the wildfire crisis that you hear about, especially in the western United States,” Furman said. “The researchers here are working to develop tools that will help folks in other parts of the country and int the southeast to have more options for prescribed burning safely.”
The U.S. Forest Service team will take the data collected and create next-generation fire behavior models to better learn how to manage prescribed fires and prevent wildfires, not only in the southeast but across the United States.
This is the second time the IRMT is conducting research at Fort Stewart. The team of scientists studied burns here in March 2022.
Fort Stewarts prescribed burn season runs Dec. 1 to June 30—the growing season for the long-leaf pine ecosystem the comprises much of its training area. With daily burns averaging 600 acres, the goal is to safely burn 100,000 to 120,000 acres every year.
Bryan Whitmore, Fort Stewart’s lead wildland fire manager, said the benefits to prescribed burning are two-fold. The primary reason is providing safe and open training spaces for 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers and other DoD personnel; the second is wildland conservation that helps the pine trees, red cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and other creatures and vegetation on Fort Stewart.
Prescribed burning is crucial to sustain the military training mission here on Fort Stewart,” Whitmore said. “Our prescribed burns help manage the endangered species so that military training can continue uninterrupted. Additionally, when we prescribe burn, it mitigates the fuel on the ranges and training areas so that when the military is training and they're firing live fire munitions they do not create wildfires which would also interrupt their military training mission. It comes down to readiness.”
Louise Loudermilk U.S. Forest research ecologist, echoed the importance of prescribed burning ensuring safe military training due to reduced fuels along with the ecological benefits.
“These are fire-dependent ecosystems so they’re really important for endangered species,” Loudermilk said. “Without Fort Stewart providing this land for conservation, we wouldn’t have these amazing plants and animals.”
An interesting fact about consistent fire application in Fort Stewart’s training area is the smoke’s color shows effective wildland management, Whitmore said.
The white smoke shows a complete combustion,” he said. “It’s light and wispy and gets moved off of Fort Stewart pretty quickly. If you see a dark black or gray smoke, it's incomplete combustion or there's heavy carbon fuels being burned like actual trees. We like to keep our smoke light and white on Fort Stewart.”
Scott Pokswinski New Mexico Consortium, said seeing smoke over Fort Stewart is a sign of a well-maintained ecosystem.
“There’s a natural process for us to have healthy forests to meet cultural objectives, to meet military training objectives to meet ecological and forestry objectives,” Pokswinski said. “We have to reintegrate that fire because there’s no other answer. There’s no other way to make these forests healthy and safe for us.”
Whitmore added the fires are called prescriptions because lots of science and planning goes into a daily burn.
“It is called a prescribed burn because we have a detailed prescription that lays out the weather parameters and smoke mitigation measures that we take when we implement a prescribed burn,” he said.
Drift smoke can be a reality from Fort Stewart’s prescribed burning, however, especially when unforeseen weather changes the smokes intended path. To report drift smoke, call 912-435-9879.