Fighting fire with fire

Fighting fire with fire
‘Prescribed fires’ use burning

20 March 2006

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USA — Ten-foot flames creep through 80 acres of forest, engulfing grass, shrubs, downed oaks and rotting pines. Water tanks stand at the ready, but these fire men carry torches. They walk the fire line, leaving flames in their wake, scorching the earth. These men are fighting forest fires. The forest is on fire.

Graham Horton uses a drip torch to start a “head fire” Thursday afternoon at Okeetee Club hunting plantation. About 650 acres of underbrush and dried grass were thinned out.

Prescribed fires or prescribed burning are new terms for an old practice.

At the Okeetee Club — a private hunting plantation between Ridgeland and Hardeeville in the tiny community of Switzerland — more than 635 acres went up in flames Thursday, a practice that reduces the chances of uncontrollable wildfires and enhances plant and wildlife conditions.

“A lot of your upland Southern ecosystems have evolved with fire,” says Kevin Parker, the resident forester at the club. “And if you don’t start it, Mother Nature will, and she’s ruthless.”

Foresters don’t leave wildfire to chance — they’d rather burn under controlled conditions than let Mother Nature chance the out-of-control. But even in the best conditions, heavy precautions are the rule of law.

“The name of the game is smoke,” Parker says with satellite maps, Internet printouts and forestry charts spread across the hood of his F-150. “You don’t want to smoke up Interstate 95 or smoke out Hilton Head Island.”

Every morning and every afternoon, the S.C. Forestry Commission updates burning conditions. Like the hurricane scale in reverse, weather is listed in categories: A Category 5 means perfect burning conditions and a Category 1 means absolutely no burning. With the weather report, the estimated tonnage of debris to be burned, the GPS location of the tract and information on surrounding lands, the forestry commission awards or denies one-day burn permits over the phone.

“This isn’t, ‘Gee, I think I’ll go start a fire today,'<2009>” Parker says tossing the burn plan in the back of his truck.


The Okeetee Club is bisected by roads, fire lines cut into the earth with an industrial disc harrownatural borders like wetlands. Parker burns the different sections on a rotating basis, usually one parcel every one to two years, igniting anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 acres a year.

Usually three weeks after the understory is reduced to charcoal, green returns as the primary color, he says.

Ten feet off the fire line, an old rotted pine sways in the light wind. The treetop leans heavily to the south, then the north when gravity takes over and it crashes through the crowns of three neighboring, healthy trees. Glenn Smith and Bobby Ginn walk out of the scrub, back to the line, with chain saw and sledgehammer in hand.

“They’re walking the line cutting down snags,” Parker says.

Dead wood catches quickly, and a 60-foot tree just 10 feet from the line could mean 50 feet of flames in the no-flame zone.


“People remember six years ago, the ash from the Florida wildfires came up as far as Georgetown, South Carolina,” Milton Woods, a conservationist with the Good Hope Plantation outside Ridgeland, said early last week. “Well that was because there wasn’t proper prescribed burning in the state of Florida.”

With the help of several state and local agencies, some conservationists like Woods have started the Lowcountry Wildland Urban Interface Council.

The group will meet in with Lowcountry officials at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Hardeeville City Hall to discuss prescribed burning and the Firewise Community program, spearheaded by the state Forestry Commission. The program aims to teach educators and developers building near rural areas the best techniques to prevent unmanageable wildfires and the virtues of prescribed fire.

“We need to educate the people that not all fire is bad fire and just because you see smoke, you don’t always call 911,” Woods said.

In the afternoon at the Okeetee Club, the Category 3 day turned into a Category 4 with a temperature drop and humidity spike.

“Looks to me like we’ll have to light it earlier than we thought,” Parker says to Graham Horton, the assistant superintendent, in the cab of a mud-strewn F-150.

“Yup,” Horton says. “We’ll cut a new line and we’ll do it up.”

He picks up the CB and calls his men with chain saws and sledge hammers, torches and Zippos: “We’re going to let ’em rip.”


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