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Fighting fire with fire

By Terrence Larimer | 628th Civil Engineer Squadron | Jan. 8, 2019

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. — Wildfires in California were big news last year. Fortunately, South Carolina was mostly spared, but it pays to remember South Carolina is no stranger to wildfires. 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 Engineering Squadron's Wildland Fire Management Plan addresses wildfire prevention and fire management on base. The front line of the plan's defense is the prescribed fire program, which covers nearly 12,000 acres of managed forest land across the base.

Brock Williams, leader of the seven-man Wildland Fire Team assigned to JB Charleston and Shaw Air Force Base, says one of the plan's primary goals is to prevent and minimize wildfire by reducing fuel loads.  

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 fires have been conducted annually on base for over 30 years. As a result, our forest fuel loads are relatively low and the wildfires we have had on base so far have been easily controlled and caused little damage.  

JB Charleston’s prescribed fire season generally begins in January and runs through June, depending on weather conditions. All prescribed fires in South Carolina are monitored by the South Carolina 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 most important to prescribed burns include wind speed and direction, relative humidity, ambient temperature, fuel moisture and a number of smoke dispersal factors such as ventilation rate, mixing height, and transport wind direction.  

“Before every operation, we also get an individual spot weather forecast for the exact area we are planning to burn from the National Weather Service and work closely off of that,” said Williams. 
 
The weather-dependent nature of controlled burning means that fire managers cannot issue a burning schedule. Weather predictions change daily and the final decision to conduct each burn is made by the 628th CES commander early in the morning on the day of.  

The key to prescribed burning is control, which is 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. They can destroy timber, burn homes and kill people and wildlife. 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.

As the JB Charleston Wildland Fire Program manager, a state-certified prescribed fire manager and a certified federal wildland firefighter with 26 years of experience conducting prescribed fires, I can definitively say the use of prescribed fire is a desirable and economically-sound practice in southern forests, as well as the single most important and cost effective tool used by land managers in the Southeast. 

Prescribed fire 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 also improves wildlife habitat by increasing the quantity and quality of leafy browse food while creating openings and avenues for feeding, travel and escape. 

Additionally, periodic low-intensity fires enhance forest appearance and improve access for hunting and other recreational activities by eliminating brush and opening the forests up to outdoor enthusiasts.

Of course, prescribed fires do 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. We at JB Charleston minimize these smoke-related issues by choosing the optimum weather conditions and timing for prescribed burning.

Base Natural Resources personnel, in cooperation with personnel from the Air Force’s Wildland Fire Center, annually prescribe burn three to five thousand acres of woodlands.

For additional information on controlled burning call the base Natural Resources Office at 843-794-7951.