Burninating the countryside

16 Jan 2007 | Cpl. Brandon R. Holgersen

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Every year infernos are lit in the training areas and impact zones here, but unlike a raging forest fire that is ignited by a single cigarette butt carelessly tossed from a speeding car window, these fires are meticulously orchestrated and planned.

These are the prescribed fires, which are used to clear away invasive plants and dead wood, create safe training areas and an ideal ecological environment for North Carolina’s native plants and endangered species, said Danny Becker the Forest Protection Section program manager for the Environment Conservation Branch of the Environmental Management Division, Installations and Environment, Marine Corps Base.

The prescribed burning, conducted from December through July, are beneficial for a variety of reasons, said Becker.

From a military aspect, it maintains the line of sight at the training ranges and allows for increased maneuverability, said Becker. It creates a safer training environment because a person can easily keep in contact with their unit. It also reduces the amount of fuel for fires that can be sparked by artillery and other pyrotechnics.

“The burning helps to maintain that open under story that is historic in the South East,” said Becker.

The Southeast has traditionally had a very open forest floor because of natural fires, said Becker.

The burning also helps native species of plants and animals, which occupy the area to flourish, said Becker.

“We have a lot of [native] plant and animal species that have evolved in natural fires and Native American burning,” said Craig Ten Brink, the Threatened and Endangered Species program manager.

The endangered red cocked wood pecker is only one of those species that benefit from the fires. The wood pecker, which occupies Camp Lejeune and likes these open pine forests with very few hard woods, said Ten Brink. The fires also help to protect the rough leave loosestrife that grows in the ecotone, the area bordering a wetland and dry land. The fires work to maintain the ecotone and keep the loosestrife safe from invasive species. This also helps the Venus fly trap, which is a state rare plant.

Some species of plants are dependent on the fires, said Ten Brink.

“Wire grass will only produce when their seeds are burned into the ground,” said Ten Brink.

This wire grass also provides a natural habitat for ground based birds such as quail, said Ten Brink.

Small plants are not the only ones that benefit from the burns, said Becker. The long leaf pine also benefit burning because it keeps invasive hardwoods from invading pine forests.

“This keeps a Long Leaf Pine forest a Long Leaf Pine forest,” said Becker.

Clearing the brush is not only a way to keep the environment and training safe but it is also a way to keep the community safe, said Becker. Without the fires, the base would stand the chance of a catastrophic damage of natural resources, property damage and burned scenery.

“If you let that fuel get out of control you run the risk of losing a forest that takes decades to grow,” said Becker.

Before one fire is lit, the Forest Protection Section goes through extensive planning to check on weather conditions, the amount of fuel in the area and to prioritize, which areas need to be burned at different times of the year, said Becker. Wind is an important factor to take in when they plan to burn. The section tries to keep all the smoke blowing in toward the base so that it does not float over Jacksonville. It also determines where the section starts the fires.

The section uses three kinds of fires, said Becker. A back fire, head fire and flanking fire are used. The back fire is a set so that it backs into the wind and is slow moving, a head fire is set before the wind and is fast moving, a flanking fire is set perpendicular to the wind and burns with great intensity. These fires are used in different combinations with each other to create burn lanes and control the area burned.

To light these fires members of the Forest Restoration Section use drip torches, which contain a mixture of diesel fuel, said Becker. This and other simple tools help to maintain the target 25,000 acres of land burned each year.

The section uses dirt roads, bulldozers with fire plows to make containment areas for the fire, said Becker. The team is also equipped with forest fire fighting tools in case the fire jumps to another area.

The first controlled burning order was established in 1946 and the base has been setting controlled fires ever since, said Becker. This has helped to maintain the training effectiveness and a healthy environment for the native species and plants here.

“It is one of the best tools that we have,” said Becker.