Residents living near Fort Stewart probably have noticed a little smoke recently. Bob Tanner, fire operations team leader for Fort Stewart’s Forestry Branch, said not to worry. He said the Army deliberately conducts “prescribed burns” in specific areas from March through June and over the Christmas holidays to prevent uncontrolled wildfires. Each area is burned on a three-year cycle, he said.
“Basically, we burn for the military mission and to protect endangered species,” said Tanner as he prepared to lead a prescribed-burn meeting with key “burn bosses” in the Forestry Branch conference room. “If we don’t burn (undergrowth like brush, leaves and pine straw), and a wildfire occurs, it’ll be more destructive. Prescribed burning is part of forest management.”
Tanner said prescribed burning mitigates fires caused by lightning or tracer rounds and flares during military training. Fire Operations Chief Tony Rubine said the success of prescribed burning is indicated by Fort Stewart not having lost a day of training due to wildfires since 2000. He said wildfires have dropped from 700 a year to about 100 a year. And though the Forest Branch has burned more than 1.1 million acres through prescribed burning since that time, there have been no “time lost” accidents while burning.
Tanner said he follows a prescription checklist before each burn, which includes up-to-date information on the weather, including wind speed and direction; temperature and relative humidity; forest fuel like brush, leaves and pine straw in the prescribed area; and structures that need to be protected, such as buildings, light poles, bridges and colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers.
“We try to take into consideration who might be most affected by the smoke,” said Tanner, pointing out there are areas near I-95 that are infrequently burned due to the risk of smoke affecting traffic on the interstate. “Any wind shift could cause a problem,” he said.
Attending Tuesday’s meeting were helicopter pilot Gene Benson, aerial ignition specialist Russ Carter, burn bosses Curtis Bryant and Brad Tatum, and lead fire-tower person Caroline Fore. Information provided to these individuals soon sent them on their way to prep the more than 23,000 acres scheduled to be burned that day. He said that preparation includes cutting firebreaks along the border of the burn areas and gathering more weather information from the installation’s five remote weather stations.
Benson, who is retired from the Army and the U.S. Forest Service, said he’s been flying for 42 years. He said if sustained winds are no greater than 20 mph, he can safely fly and conduct aerial burns. As he flies over the prescribed-burn area, a machine shoots ping-pong-size balls down to the forest floor. Tanner said these balls are filled with potassium permanganate. Just prior to each burn, the balls are injected with ethylene glycol. Seconds after each ball hits the ground, it ignites, he said.
Rubine said usually before Benson begins his flyovers, crews working on the ground start back-burning fires along the border of the prescribed-burn area. These fires are started with drip torches or flame torches, he said. David Johnson and Kenneth Crews started such a back-burning fire by 11 a.m. Tuesday.
“The main thing I like to get across to my folks and the community is safety,” Rubine said. “We do not jeopardize safety. To do today’s burn, we started coordination back in October. We coordinate with Fort Stewart’s housing office, Range Control, Cultural Resource Management and Public Affairs Office.”
Early Friday afternoon Hinesville residents probably noticed ashes and smoke coming from the cantonment area of Fort Stewart. Public affairs spokesman Pat Young confirmed the ashes and smoke were from a controlled burn taking place six miles northwest of the cantonment area. He said the Forestry Branch received several calls about the smoke, but they wanted to assure the public it was a prescribed burn, and there would be some smoke along Highway 144 West.
Chief Forester Jeff Mangum and Timber Manager T.J. Quarles said it is important to inform and educate the public why prescribed burns are necessary. Rubine added a little smoke now is far better than clouds of smoke and destruction from a wildfire.