NEWS | Jan. 4, 2011

Fighting fire with fire

By Terrence Larimer, Joint Base Charleston Natural Resources Manager

Be prepared to smell some wood smoke around Joint Base Charleston this winter. Wood smoke usually indicates that a prescribed fire is being conducted by the Station's Natural Resources personnel somewhere on the Station's 11,000 acres of managed timberlands. And while the smoke from a prescribed fire can be annoying these fires are used to prevent the smoke from a wildfire...which can be terrifying.

For more than 25 years, prescribed fire has been employed on JB Charleston to reduce the possibility of a serious wildfire. Conducted by trained fire mangers, 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.

Prescribed fire season begins on JB Charleston - WS in early January and runs thru May. All prescribed fires in S.C. are monitored by the S.C. Forestry Commission. Before these fires are started a notification number 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. Weather conditions which affect prescribed burns include wind speed and direction, relative humidity, ambient temperature, fuel moisture and a number of smoke dispersal factors (ventilation rate, mixing height, and transport wind direction). The weather dependent nature of control burning means that fire managers cannot issue a burning schedule. Weather predictions change daily and the final decision to conduct a burn is made early in the morning on the actual day of the 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, killing 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 three to six feet from the ground.

Prescribed fire has many benefits making it a desirable and economically sound practice in southern pine forests. As previously mentioned, it reduces the accumulation of leaf litter, pine needles and dead sticks, thus reducing the danger of catastrophic wildfires. It helps prepare woodland sites for a new generation of pine trees for planting or natural regeneration. It improves wildlife habitat by increasing the quantity and quality of leafy browse food while creating openings and avenues for feeding, travel and escape. Additionally, it reduces understory scrub hardwoods in areas managed for pine timber killing unwanted hardwood seedlings. And finally, periodic low intensity fires enhance forest appearance and improve access for hunting and other recreational activities by eliminating brush and thus opening the forests up 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 helps minimize these smoke issues.

Base Natural Resources personnel annually prescribe burn approximately 3,300 acres of woodlands. If you are concerned about a woods fire, controlled burning activity on JB Weapons can be confirmed by the Emergency Dispatcher at 764-7555. For additional information on controlled burning call the JB Charleston Natural Resources Office at 764-7951. But remember, if you smell wood smoke this winter, not all fire is bad.