By Vince Little, The BayonetMarch 2, 2011
FORT BENNING, Ga. - The Environmental Management Division's Land Management Branch is fighting fire with fire - literally.
The Directorate of Public Works agency has ignited its annual round of prescribed burns in post training areas. They're needed to maintain longleaf pine forests, control vegetation in the understory and reduce fuel sources for potentially catastrophic wildfires, said Land Management Branch chief James Parker. It's also an important tool in managing the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker habitat.
On average, the impact areas are burned every two to three years, totaling about 30,000 to 40,000 acres of upland pine forests annually, he said. Most controlled burns on Fort Benning occur between December and June.
"Due to the required weather parameters, Fort Benning only has about 65 days a year that a prescribed burn can be conducted," he said. "This is not the only place where prescribed burns occur. In fact, on most good burning days, there's more prescribed burning being conducted outside Fort Benning than on the installation because of the numerous private individuals and companies that also conduct them during this time."
In 1985, before the introduction of prescribed burns across post, Parker said there were about 600 wildfires a year on Fort Benning. Today, less than 100 blazes break out annually.
"When a wildfire occurs on Fort Benning, it's usually small and can be extinguished quickly in most situations due to prescribed burning keeping fuel loads down," he said. "(But) wildfires that occur in training areas must be left to burn out on their own - because of the presence of unexploded ordnance, they cannot be extinguished. Wildfires in impact areas are monitored to make sure they are contained within the designated impact areas."
Each morning during burn season, Land Management Branch foresters and technicians look at Georgia Forestry Commission and local weather forecasts. Rainfall amounts, humidity, wind speed and direction are among the variables that must be considered before conducting a burn.
The wind and dispersion index - how quickly the smoke dissipates - are the most critical factors in predicting the effects of smoke generated by the controlled-burn activities, Parker said. Officials always work to prevent smoke from reaching Main Post, housing areas and communities surrounding Fort Benning.
"Smoke impacts are the biggest concern we have when conducting a prescribed burn," he said. "If weather parameters do not support adequate conditions to prevent smoke from impacting sensitive areas, then no prescribed burns will occur on Fort Benning. ... The safety of the citizens of Fort Benning and surrounding communities is always a top priority, and every effort is made to make sure that smoke from prescribed burning does not impact them."
The Land Management Branch said it notifies post leaders and local officials of all prescribed burning events each day and indicates where the burns will take place and the anticipated wind direction.
Fort Benning spends about $500,000 a year on controlled burns, which covers supplies, equipment upkeep and labor, Parker estimated. That also includes firebreak maintenance, planning and execution.
WHY ARE PRESCRIBED BURNS NECESSARY'
Prescribed burning helps maintain a healthy forest while providing quality lands to support the various Maneuver Center of Excellence training missions. It's a key management tool in sustaining the longleaf pine ecosystem. Longleaf pine forests were once vast across the Southeast and comprised approximately 90 million acres. Today, there are only about 3 million acres of longleaf pine forests. Fort Benning is slowly replacing off-site tree species with longleaf pine, planting about 40,000 acres since 1994. Longleaf pine is a very fire-dependent species and the most disease-resistant tree of the Southern pines.
The installation is required every three years by the Endangered Species Act to burn all upland pine habitats where the red-cockaded woodpecker occurs. Each year, Fort Benning must report the acres burned and projected burn schedule to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to verify compliance with the three-year burning requirement.
Prescribed burning also reduces fuel loads and keeps them in a manageable condition. This helps prevent the occurrence of catastrophic wildfires stemming from military training activities. Firebreaks around impact areas are maintained annually to contain any wildfires that may be triggered by munitions.
Source: Land Management Branch