Fighting fire with fire: the benefits of prescribed burns

All the rain and humidity this week have kept the risk lower for wild fires, but there are certain weather conditions that do the opposite.

When the relative humidity outside is expected to be less than 25 percent and the sustained wind speed is 20 miles per hour or greater within the next 12 to 36 hours, a Fire Weather Watch or Red Flag Warning is issued. This is so fire officials and firefighters are aware of potentially dangerous fire weather conditions.

A Red Flag Warning is issued for the same reasons, but when those conditions are expected sooner – within 12 to 24 hours. A red flag warning should not be confused with a gale, tropical storm or hurricane warning – which use red flags on the beach to indicate strong winds and rough surf.

Some of those who watch for these conditions include Fort Benning and the Georgia Forestry Commission. They also monitor and help prevent wild fires throughout the year.

“The Georgia Forestry’s primary way of detecting wild fires is with aircraft, and we patrol during higher fire days with the aircraft,” says Georgia Forestry Commission Chief Ranger and Forest Technician RT Lumpkin.

He says they also monitor wild fires through fire towers.

“So we partner with Fort Benning and Chattahoochee County to employ a fire tower operator in Cusseta and they man that tower seven days a week looking for wild fires, and they report that to the Fort Benning installation to the land management branch and they triangulate those wild fires with their fire towers so they can actually locate them,” says Lumpkin.

Along with monitoring, Fort Benning and the Georgia Forestry Commission help prevent wild fires with prescribed burns.

“If you remove the amount of fuel that’s in front of a wild fire, it’s going to greatly reduce how that fire reacts. It’s going to reduce it to sometimes nothing. It’ll actually put it out if it runs into an old prescribed burn,” adds Lumpkin.

Fort Benning conducts prescribed burns as well. They strategically and safely burn underbrush in a controlled environment on a 2 to 3 year rotation over the installation.

“Our main objective is to support the training mission here at Fort Benning. And a lot of those training activities do cause fires, so as part of our prescribed burn program in the rotations that we have out here help reduce training down time and allow the training to continue and fires to be controlled appropriately,” says Stephen Hudson.

Hudson is the Operations Lead in the Natural Resources Management Branch at Fort Benning.

Courtesy: Stephen Hudson

It may sound ironic to fight fire with fire, but the effects are beneficial. The more prescribed burns Fort Benning conducts, the less wild fires.

“Even though this is fuel here, there is nothing that is contiguous next to it that can catch it on fire. So there’s not a fine fuel that can connect. If we set that log on fire and laid it down, the log’s going to burn..there’s nothing that’s going to spread that fire at all,” says Hudson.

There were over 40,000 wild fires in 1985. That number has steadily decreased over the past 31 years. In 2016, there were just over 100.

It also has a positive benefit on wildlife and vegetation. The fire moves over the underbrush quickly enough to reduce it, but not long enough to permanently harm future growth. The landscape Stephen is on was burned April 25, 2017 and in just a few short months has returned to full health…only now, it does not pose a risk to fuel wild fires.

Prescribed burn season runs from December to May. During the off-season, Fort Benning, the Georgia Forestry Commission and fire officials keep a watchful eye over the land and make plans to help prevent and reduce future wild fires.

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