Fighting fire with fire

Fightingfire with fire

10 March 2007

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USA — A Wildland Fire Team from the U.S. Army Corps ofEngineers burned 100 acres of wildland near Bennett’s Bayou — across NorforkLake from Mountain Home — this week, though most people in the city didn’tnotice.

The fire crew planned it that way, though fire and nature don’t alwaysconform to the plans of man.

Such was the case about two weeks ago when smoke from one of the fire crew’scontrolled burns rolled over town one afternoon. Wind had changed directionunexpectedly that day, but the crew tries to conduct burns only when optimumconditions — low humidity and favorable wind direction — are forecast, saidBruce Caldwell, the crew’s fire boss.

Wednesday’s burn on about 30 acres was as tame a fire as could be expected. Two crew members used drip torches to drop flames onto the dry leaves along the outer edge of the area to be burned. Another five crewmen on foot and fourwheelers around the perimeter relayed messages and watched for trouble.

The controlled burn technique used by the crew targets ground fuel and small saplings but generally leaves larger trees alive and healthy, Caldwell said.

Once the underbrush is burned, more sunlight reaches the ground, and soon succulent new plant life springs forth, said 28-year Corps veteran Michael Cannon.

Cannon spoke passionately about the burns’ benefits to plants and animals while he held down the crew’s “anchor” position, watching for any fire sparked by embers behind the 10-foot-wide fire line.

The fire line is a safety barrier that separates land to be burned from the rest of the wildland.

After a few minutes, Cannon was busy dealing with one of the minor dangers that can occur during controlled burns. A hollow, dead tree had lit. To prevent embers that could go much higher and farther than the crew prudently could allow, Cannon put out the smoldering dry stand with water from a Corps tanker.

Meanwhile, the rest of the fire was spreading much as planned.

The crew begins its burns at the fire line, going against prevailing winds. Once the fire has consumed the first 30 feet in from the fire line, the crew can creep along to the back and start another fire. The wind can carry that second fire quickly over the targeted area to reach the first blaze, Cannon said.

This method allows the crew to burn land with more speed while retaining control of the blaze, he said.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineer park ranger Jamie Camp uses a drip torch Wednesday to start a controlled burn on part of the Bennett’s Bayou wildlife management area. The Corps uses the controlled burns to improve habitat for wildlife. (Photo: Kevin Pieper)

Caldwell said his crew out of the Corps’ Mountain Home Project Office couldburn as much as 2,000 acres around Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes by April 1. Thefire crew is trained by the National Wildlife Coordinating Group, he said. Assupervisor, Caldwell also is trained in weather calculations, wildlife behavior,smoke management and burn plan development.

Private landowners also can conduct controlled burns, Caldwell said, but mustfollow state guidelines. Information about private controlled burns in BaxterCounty can be obtained by calling 481-5501. In Marion County, the number is449-4800.

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