Forestry section 'burning' to preserve environment

13 Jun 2003 | Cpl. Kristin S. Gambrell

Fire is preserving nearly 150 square miles of land here flourishing with wildlife. 

The Forestry Section gives Mother Nature a helping hand periodically by burning portions of ground cover during a five-year rotation to promote the habitat and keep the environment on its natural cycle.

"Prescribed burns are used to help restore the natural process and functions of the ecosystem," said Pete Black, base forester, Environmental Conservation Branch.

Historically speaking, fires naturally occur in the spring due to lightning strikes and other causes, said Black.  The environment naturally burns on a five-year cycle with an average burning every three years.

As settlers began inhabiting the land, however, people put out all fires, believing they were all harmful, according to Black.  He explained this mindset peaked in the 40s and 50s and continues in some areas of the United States today.  This belief, however, threw off the natural order of fires preventing undergrowth buildup, he said. 

"The ecosystem out here grew up with a dependence on fire," said Black.  "So we are trying to put the natural disturbance of fire back in the system."

There are two types of burns the Forestry Section conducts: dormant and growing season burns.

Dormant season, or winter, burns are conducted in the fall after the leaves drop.  These burns cannot mimic the growing season burns, but they can extend the positive effects of a growing season burn.

"Initially winter burns were all anyone did until some ecologist recommended we needed to do growing season burns to mimic natural fire occurrence," Black said.

Buildup, such as leaves, pinecones and grass, are considered fuel and removed by routine burning.  Black said the reason some parts of the country experience such devastating fires is because people have prevented fires in those areas for so long there is too much fuel for a fire.

Reducing the buildup makes it easier to fight the more than 150 forest fires occurring annually on base.  The fires do not get as hot because there is not as much fuel to keep them burning, said Black.

Forestry officials routinely conduct growing season burns from mid-March to late June when the ecosystem naturally experiences fires.

All the plants are genetically geared to fruit and flower only after growing season burns, said Black.  It is important to be very careful with growing season fires because that is when the forest is most vulnerable to damage, he said.

The Forestry Section takes into account weather conditions to determine how much can be burned each day during a burn.

Officials use a combination of natural and constructed buffers, such as streams and roads, to control and contain the fires, said Danny T. Becker, assistant base forester, Environmental Conservation Branch.

All this careful planning and work forestry personnel do throughout the year contribute to the environment's health here.

The base is filled with a variety of different animals and vegetation from white-tailed deer to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and the Rough-leaved loosestrife plant.

All of the flora and fauna on base grew up with fire and need fire to survive.  When the build-up that consumes the ground is burned, it gives new sprouts a chance to grow, said Becker.  The new sprouts are healthier for the animals.

"Burning is the single best tool we have to manage our wildlife and our forests," said Black.