But as the forestry team left the planning table and headed into the woods at Fort Stewart on Tuesday morning, they knew heat was on the way. Within hours, they would light fires across 2,000 acres of coastal Georgias largest military installation, monitoring the controlled burn and its effects from the air and various locations on the ground.
The process involves a flame-throwing pickup, combustible pingpong balls being dropped from the sky and constant vigilance to make sure smoke doesnt affect thousands of nearby residents.
And its something forestry staffers do about 190 times a year.
Fighting fire with fire
Fort Stewart spans roughly 279,000 acres over five counties. About 150,000 of those acres are upland forest mainly longleaf pine trees.
Longleaf ecosystems are fire dependent. If the shrubs and plants growing beneath the main canopy of a forest dont burn every so often, the trees grow too closely to one another and blot out sunlight needed at the bottom.
The pine forests on Fort Stewart are intensively managed, and much of that is through prescribed burning along with other land on the installation.
We burn about 120,000 acres a year, said Tony Rubine, fire management supervisor of Fort Stewarts Forestry Branch.
The main reason is training. About 18,000 soldiers from 3rd Infantry Division call Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield home. And all that open space helps keep them prepared training ranges are peppered throughout the installations acreage.
Having more space between trees an effect of the burning means enhanced maneuverability for the soldiers.
It also means theres less maneuverability for fire.
Wildfires happen, but forestry staff have made it harder for them to spread by managing the conditions. More space between trees and reduced underbrush what Rubine calls natural fuel lessens the ability for fire to rapidly jump around and get out of control.
Fort Stewart hasnt lost a day of training because of fire in 16 years.
Before the installation started managing through burns, Rubine said, as many as 600 wildfires were reported in a year. Now, its rare to see more than 30, he said.
As a plus, intense management of forest land on Fort Stewart is attributed as one of the primary factors in the recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker on the installation an endangered bird that only nests in longleaf pines. Since efforts to save the bird began in the early 1990s, woodpecker numbers have nearly tripled.
Its a total win-win for the Army, and its a win-win for the environment, Rubine said.
At the start of the day, the seven-person team sat at the long table in the forestry offices conference room off Ga. 144 and listened to fire planner Curtis Bryant.
He had printouts of four different weather forecasts in front of him, but with the temperature outside still below freezing, he issued a simple warning to the crew. Its going to be cool all day, Brown said.
The team studied the prescription for the day. They would hit 2,000 acres in Bryan County. First, they would double check to make sure everything was clear. Then, two members would go along the perimeter and use a terra torch a mobile flamethrower that can be used from the back of a pickup or other vehicle to burn in the baseline, a tactic that scorches underbrush as a security measure to prevent the next phase from going too far.
Thats when a helicopter flies overhead, dropping four delayed aerial ignition devices per acre over the target area. Within 20 seconds of being activated, the devices that look like pingpong balls combust and set fire to whatevers around them.
On Tuesday, the team would go through about 8,000 of them.
All the while, a burn boss on the ground rides around keeping an eye on things as does Rubine. Others keep watch from above in one of Fort Stewarts five fire towers, making sure things dont get out of hand with the wind and the smoke. And if they do, a specialized bulldozer with a V-shaped blade is ready to roll to suppress excess fire.
But that shouldnt be necessary burning in a baseline works pretty well, and the team uses existing barriers like roads and streams to control the area of the fire. One of the biggest concerns is smoke, and they put a lot of planning into that as well.
Everything has to fit the weather parameters, Rubine said.
On Tuesday morning, the winds were out of the northwest at 8 mph. The humidity wasnt too high. And the transport wind, a calculation of how fast smoke will be carried away, was expected to hit 12 mph enough to clear the smoke out of the sky before speed drops and humidity rises, allowing it to sink to ground level.
At night, the smoke settles, Rubine said. Its like fog. Thats why we burn as early in the day as possible to get it out of there.
With Hinesville and Richmond Hill nearby and Savannah and its airport not too far away, clearing smoke is paramount.
Once in a while, there are hiccups.
Every now and then, the fire is going to change, and were going to get smoke where we dont want it, Bryant said. But its rare that happens.
And while the rest of the crew was in the field Tuesday, Bryant was already planning the next burn and keeping local and state agencies up to speed.
Its something hell do throughout the year. The forestry branch burns constantly from December to June if the conditions are right. And when theyre not burning, theyre training.
Forestry staffers burn 412 tracts of land designated natural resources management units. Of that, about 42,000 acres of live fire training areas are burned every year to keep ranges finely tuned. The rest is burned on a three-year rotating basis.
Smoke might be a nuisance to some, but Rubine points out what can happen when forests arent actively maintained. Even nearby, in Horry County, S.C., about 15,000 acres of forest land burned in 2009, destroying about 70 homes and displacing hundreds of residents.
If you dont burn the forests down here in the southeast, Rubine said, something catastrophic will happen.