NEWS | Nov. 18, 2013

Fighting fire with fire

By Terrence Larimer Joint Base Charleston Natural Resources manager

Wildfires in Alabama and North Carolina are making news this November and South Carolina is no stranger to wildfire either. In 2009, just north of Myrtle Beach, 20,500 acres of forest land suffered wildfire, destroying 76 homes and damaging another 96. Here at Joint Base Charleston, the 628th Civil Engineer Squadron's Wildlands Fire Management Plan addresses wildfire prevention and management on base.

The front line of the plan's defense is the prescribed fire program. The plan's number one goal is to prevent and minimize wildfire by reducing fuel loads in the 12,000 acres of managed forest land present on JB Charleston.

For more than 28 years, prescribed fire has been employed on base 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 generally begins on JB Charleston in December and runs through June or later depending on weather conditions. All prescribed fires in South Carolina 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 website. Weather conditions most important to 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 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 by the Joint Base command.

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, controlled burns do not kill trees that have grown beyond the seedling stage. The fire burns 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 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 and timing for prescribed burning helps minimize these smoke issues.

Base Natural Resources personnel, in conjunction with the base Fire Department, annually prescribe burn three to five thousand acres of woodlands on JB Charleston. If you are concerned about a wood's fire, controlled burning activity on JB Charleston can be confirmed by calling 794-7555. For additional information on controlled burning call the base Natural Resources Office at 794-7951.