NEWS | Jan. 3, 2012

A prescription to prevent wildfires

By Terrence Larimer Joint Base Natural Resources manager

Wildfire will continue to be a major concern in South Carolina this year due to dry conditions.

Darryl Jones of the S.C. Forestry Commission said, "Based on the long-term deficit of rainfall, we are very concerned about the upcoming wildfire season. Some parts of the state are already very dry and recent frosts have helped to dry out grasses, leaves and other light fuels where most wildfires start."

The seasonal outlook for the next few months indicates an increasing potential for high wildfire activity in most of South Carolina. Wildfire occurrence picks up in the fall and winter as there will be more people cleaning up their yards and enjoying the outdoors. Last year, more than 96 percent of the wildfires in South Carolina were human-caused, including fires started from escaped leaf burns, woods arson and equipment use. Everyone needs to be very careful with fire, especially during the ongoing drought.

One of the most effective ways to prevent and minimize wildfires is the use of prescribed fire. Conducted by trained fire managers, prescribed fire is the controlled application of fire to woodlands under specified environmental conditions, following appropriate precautionary measures. This controlled application confines the fire to a predetermined area and accomplishes planned land management objectives. Proper use of prescribed fire can reduce the threat of wildfire and benefit woodlands and wildlife.

Prescribed fire season begins on Joint Base Charleston - Weapons Station in early January and continues through May, primarily during cool weather, but scheduling is totally dependent on weather conditions. All prescribed fires in S.C. are permitted and monitored by the S.C. Forestry Commission. Before fires can be started, a permit must be issued by the commission from their fire control headquarters. Fire weather information, necessary to plan and conduct prescribed fires, is updated daily on the Commission's web site at (www.srh.noaa.gov/data/CHS/FWFCHS).

Weather conditions which affect prescribed burns include ground wind speed and direction, relative humidity, ambient temperature, soil moisture and a number of smoke dispersal factors (ventilation rate, mixing height and transport direction). The weather-dependent nature of control burning means fire managers cannot issue a burning schedule. Weather predictions change daily and the decision to burn is made early in the morning on the day of the actual burn.

The key to prescribed burning is control ... control achieved by carefully choosing the time and conditions under which the burn is conducted. Uncontrolled wildfire can be one of nature's most destructive forces ... destroying timber, burning homes, hurting wildlife and causing human deaths. Properly conducted, control burns do not kill trees that have grown beyond the seedling stage. They burn along the forest floor with flames rarely rising higher than two to six feet from the ground.

Prescribed fire has many benefits making it a desirable and economically sound practice in southern pine forests. It reduces the accumulation of leaf litter, pine needles and dead sticks, thus reducing the danger of uncontrolled wildfires. It helps prepare woodland sites for a new generation of pine trees by planting or natural regeneration. It improves wildlife habitat by increasing the quantity and quality of food while creating openings and avenues for feeding, travel and escape. And finally, it reduces understory scrub hardwoods in areas managed for pine timber by killing unwanted hardwood seedlings. This seedling elimination reduces hardwood competition with pine, enhances forest appearance and improves access for hunting and other activities by eliminating brush and opening the forests to outdoor enthusiasts.

Of course prescribed fires do potentially have a downside. They contribute to a temporary lowering of air quality, although to a much lesser degree than wildfires. This lowered air quality is especially troublesome to people with breathing difficulties or other respiratory related problems. Choosing the optimum weather conditions for prescribed burning can minimize the smoke issues.

JB Charleston's Natural Resources personnel annually prescribe burn approximately 3,500 acres of woodlands. If you are concerned about a woods fire, controlled burning activity can be confirmed by the Emergency Dispatch 764-7555. For additional information on controlled burning call JB Charleston's Natural Resources office at 764-7951. And remember, if you smell woods smoke this winter, not all fire is bad.