Fighting fire with fire: The science behind prescribed burns

FORT BENNING, Ga. - Fighting fire with fire may sound ironic, but the process is effective. 

Fort Benning has been conducting and collecting data on prescribed burns for over three decades. The correlation found is the more burns conducted, the less wild fires.

In 1985, around 7,500 acres were burned with 600 wild fires. This is the least amount of acres burned to date. In 2010, 47,000 acres were burned (the most to date) with just around 50 wild fires recorded.

"What these fires do is control a lot of that unwanted vegetation so that frees up access through the training landscape. So basically what we try to do is set up a mosaic pattern of burns, checker boarding, so that if a wild fire is started it's easier to control," says Fort Benning's Natural Resources Management Branch Operations Lead Stephen Hudson. 

Hudson says along with preventing wild fires, there are other benefits too. 

The fire burns low and quick enough over vegetation that is does not harm any plants....rather it encourages new growth of native plants, recycles nutrients back to the soil and reduces excessive amounts of brush. This not only helps deter wild fires that could start from training or lightning but also frees up forage for animals.

But starting controlled fires require more than just lighting a match.

"We have a series of plans developed for roughly 30 to 35,000 acres of burns each year," says Hudson.

Burn zones are rotated every two to three years so there is less build up fuel if a wild fire were to occur.

Once a zone is selected, fire experts ignite a fire line with a hand-held or atv drip-torch. Natural fire breaks like roads, ditches or creeks are mapped out when planning sections of forest to burn, and man-made breaks are made from piling up dirt. 

In addition to planning, weather plays a large role in executing prescribed burns.

"So typically we need a certain amount of days since rainfall. We need certain conditions such as relative humidity, wind speed, transport speed as well, mixing height. So all these parameters go into a good day to burn or not."

Fort Benning plans accordingly so that as little smoke as possible avoids the city, but even a slight shift in wind speed or direction could alter that. The overall objective however, prevents a far larger amount of smoke from entering the community if a wild fire were to occur.

"As we maintain the fuel loading when wild fires do get set, then they're easier to control...easier to contain...and as far as smoke emissions go, it's less than a wild fire condition would be," says Hudson.

But since prescribed burns are typically conducted from December to May (when Spring starts)...any smoke combined with high pollen counts particularly impacts people with allergies.

"Classic allergy symptoms would be runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing, itching, watery eyes – those are classic symptoms. But wood fire smoke can do all that too, and it's not technically an's really more of an irritation from the chemicals inside the smoke. So it can be really difficult to know what's allergy versus exposure to things that just irritate you like smoke," says Dr. Robert Cartwright.

Dr. Cartwright is an allergist at The Allergy Center at Brookstone in Columbus.

The best way to find out if you have an allergy or irritation to something like smoke or pollen is to take an allergy test, but there are some tips to help as well.

He says a simple mask to cover your mouth or nose while outside can help and when driving around, be sure to recycle the air inside your car rather than pull new air in. 

"Ultimately, at the end of the day though, staying indoors as best you can really is important," says Cartwright. 

Another important tip is to stay proactive. When high pollen counts, ozone or particulate matter are forecast, go ahead and take any daily medication you have if you are sensitive to those things - don't wait until you feel under the weather. 

For a schedule or more information about prescribed burns on Fort Benning click here


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