Fighting fire with fire

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shandresha Mitchell
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
Through a thick cloud of smoke, the crackling of flames becomes more distinct. Firefighters push through the woods, guiding the fire with precision and control. With the use of science and skill, they burn the brush and debris from the forest floor without harming the trees.

The 6th Civil Engineer Squadron (CES) at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, recently coordinated a prescribed burn with the Air Force Wildland Fire Center (AFWFC), a collaborative operation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Colorado State University to focus on prescribed fire and mechanical fuel treatments to improve natural habitats and reduce wildfire threats using risk-based data and maximizing shared resources.

A prescribed burn is the act of purposefully burning fire fuels, such as grasses, herbs, weeds and palmettos on a portion of land while preserving the trees. The objective is to avoid uncontrolled catastrophic wildfires while enhancing the area's natural conditions by maintaining the ecology and wildlife habitat.

"Prescribed burns are conducted for a variety of reasons, but primarily to reduce the potential for damaging wildfires, which could impact the base's mission," said Jason Kirkpatrick, the natural resources program manager with the 6th CES. "Without these fuels, wildfires have no way to grow and spread."

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, a total of 68,151 wildland fires took place in the United States, burning a total of 10,152,149 acres. To reduce the threat of wildfires on base, the 6th CES aims to conduct prescribed burns on 200 of MacDill's 5,700 acres this year.

The AFWFC and 6th CES efforts began around January, when the humidity dropped and the predominant winds shifted to come from the north.

"The months of December through May are considered 'open season' for burning, although January through March are the most ideal months," said Kirkpatrick.

Before a burn can happen, an extensive amount of planning and site preparation is conducted to ensure it can be accomplished safely with a low risk of becoming uncontrolled.

"On the morning of the burn, if the conditions are ideal, we hold a morning briefing with firefighters, security forces personnel, public affairs, civil engineers and AFWFC," said Kirkpatrick. "After everyone is briefed on the plan, has identified the escape routes, and placed notification signs in highly visible areas, we will begin the burn."

The AFWFC provides all of the equipment and supplies needed to conduct and contain a prescribed burn.

"Everyone involved in the burn wears appropriate personal protective equipment to include flame resistant clothing, eight-inch leather boots, hard hats, leather gloves, safety glasses, ear protection, and a fire shelter," said Robert Trincado, a liaison with the Peninsular Florida Wildland Support Module based out of Avon Park Air Force Range

Wildland firefighters typically use drip torches to ignite the site to be burned. A test fire is ignited in a pre-identified area within the burn unit.  

"The test fire is then observed for fire behavior and smoke dispersal," said Trincado. "If fire behavior and smoke dispersal meet our objectives, we commence with our firing operations." 

Members of the burn team continue to ignite areas of the burn site as needed throughout the day to ensure the fire keeps moving across the site. 

Although drip torches are necessary to start the fires, weather is essential in determining what the fire will do throughout the burn. Changes in weather can significantly change fire behavior and, if not monitored, can put the crew in danger.

"A change in wind speed and direction could push the fire into areas that are not planned to be burned," said Kirkpatrick. "However, if there is no wind at all, this will hinder the burn because we rely on the wind to move the fire along."

All parties involved monitor the weather and progress of the burn to ensure the burn does not escape across established fire breaks. Water trucks are continuously manned to secure the fire breaks and guarantee the fire stays contained. 

"There have been many lessons learned from prescribed burning, and some of the more common negative outcomes associated with these burnings include escaped prescribed fires that damage property, injuries associated with operations, and road closures due to heavy smoke causing limited visibility," said Trincado. "Prescribed fire is a complex management tool and should only be used by qualified fire practitioners."

When completed, the prescribed burn site has the appearance of a barren, smoky planet with a lingering smell of ash in the air. Underneath the soot lies dormant seed ready to spring to life and reclaim what the heavy brush and vines took from them.