USA —A large plume of smoke hovered over Richmond Hill.
From Interstate 95 just south of the Bryan County community it looked as if a small bomb had gone off.
But Jeff Mangun, the head of Fort Stewarts Forestry Department, said the visible smoke from the massive Army installation seen in recent weeks shouldnt be cause for concern.
From the beginning of December through the end of June, the Fort Stewart Department of Forestry conducts controlled burns across the installations 280,000 acres.
Certainly we hear about it from our neighbors, and I can completely understand, Mangun said. It can look ominous; occasionally something may happen (with the weather) were not expecting, and it will blow some of the smoke over our neighbors.
But that doesnt happen very often.
For those that wonder why Fort Stewart burns so often, Mangun has a simple explanation its vital to the bases mission.
Controlled burning eliminates unwanted vegetation that grows up on Fort Stewarts training grounds. Without it, soldiers would not be able to use many of the training ranges on the installation.
This kind of burning also reduces the risk of accidental fires or wildfires.
The military starts a lot of fires because of training, because of the pyrotechnics they use and the tracers they use, Mangun said. Of course, there are other, naturally caused fires because of for example lightning. And there are accidental fires such as vehicle fires, cigarettes, camp fires, that type of thing.
This is an area where fire has been a part of the ecosystem forever. Its not a matter of if a fire is going to start, its a matter of when, and wed prefer that it be on our own terms and not on Mother Natures.
Preserving the ecosystem
Burning is also beneficial to the areas ecosystem, said Tim Beaty, the chief of Fort Stewarts Fish and Wildlife Branch.
The resurgence of the red-cockaded woodpecker on post is a great example of how burning can preserve some of the areas endangered species that for thousands of years relied on natural fires in this area.
Burning helps maintain the longleaf pine trees dominance in the area the tree the red-cockaded woodpecker calls home, Beaty said.
Although Fort Stewart has always used controlled burning, it beefed up its program in the early 1990s.
Our woodpecker population has more than doubled since 1994, Beaty said. We expect to hit our recovery goal in the next couple of years meaning that the population here is big enough to be considered stable and self-sustaining.
And red-cockaded woodpeckers arent the only creatures that have been helped by burning. Beaty said populations of striped newts, eastern indigo snakes, flatwood salamanders and gopher tortoises are on the rise.
The most important thing to understand is that fire is a part of this ecosystem, he said. A longleaf pine forest needs fire just like a rainforest needs rain to keep everything that belongs there.
Prescribing a burn
Across Fort Stewart there are more than 400 burn blocks sections of land separated by tank trails, roads and creek beds that reduce the risk of fire jumping to another area.
Each year the installation burns some 80,000 acres of training grounds based on a series of plans, Mangun said.
Our planning process is very, very rigorous, he said. We begin planning burns probably six months out start selecting areas we want to burn, start putting them onto a spread sheet, figuring out (areas) that havent burned for, say, three years. Then we start figuring out individual burn prescriptions.
The department looks at anticipated weather conditions, areas that troops will be in for training, and any obstacles it may need to avoid on a specific burn block.
We may write around 200 burn prescriptions a year, Mangun said. They are very, very detailed plans.
We dont just go out and start striking matches and watch (a fire) go up. We plan for weeks, even months ahead of time and look at wind speed and direction, the humidity range, fuel moisture content, and we adjust and refine the prescription over time, right up until the morning of (the burn).
When its time to burn, the forestry department uses a civilian helicopter for the vast majority of the acreage.
From the sky, personnel in the helicopter drop pingpong-like balls that contain potassium permanganate that has been injected with automotive antifreeze. Once the spheres hit the ground the combination causes a small fire.
Those fires grow together so it allows it to burn quickly, and it keeps (the) intensity down rather than having a strip of fire running with the wind and getting out of hand, Mangun said. You just have these little fires that burn until they reach each other; they just burn out, and its done.
A 700-acre tract of land can be burned and out within three hours, Mangun said.
On the ground, workers spray the boundaries with a terra-torch essentially a flame thrower and stand by in case the fire spreads unexpectedly.
During the burning season if the weather is right there is always a controlled burn at Fort Stewart. Some days, Mangun said, it is obvious, and other days people in surrounding areas have no idea burns are happening.
We could be burning 3,000 acres (on the western side of the base) … and they wont even know were burning in Richmond Hill. he said. But we could be burning 100 acres (near Ga. 144) and people would think a bomb went off thats what we try to mitigate.
We try to push the smoke in a direction that its not going to hurt anyone, and we try to make them understand that the smoke youre getting from this prescribed burn is controlled and impacting the fewest amount of folks possible.