U.S. Forest Service fights fires by starting a few

A headline on the U.S. Forest Service website says, “Forest Service fights fire by starting a few.” That’s exactly what was happening near Gatewood Park during the first half of March as Forest Service and local personnel conducted a controlled burn in the area.

What exactly is a controlled or “prescribed” burn, and why is such a strategy used?

According to an article on the Forest Service’s website by Robert Hudson Westover, “The simple response is that all fire is not bad, nor is there only one kind of fire. In fact, many of our wildlands in the U.S. rely on fire to remain healthy. When conditions are safe, with calm winds and low temperatures, the Forest Service will conduct prescribed burns, somewhat assisting mother nature to create safer wildfire conditions. By burning under planned weather conditions, we can better manage the thick smoke that can come with out-of-control wildfires, and we can make our communities safer by removing some of the dry, dead debris that builds up on the forest floor.”

“Prescribed fire is just one part of a larger approach to wildfire management. When weather conditions heat up and dry out, the Forest Service works to prevent and contain fires that could threaten communities. We also use mechanical equipment to clear out dead and dying undergrowth and thin dense areas to improve tree mortality. This keeps our forests and grasslands healthy and resilient to severe wildfire and drought,” the article continued.

During the recent prescribed burn near Gatewood, Forest Service personnel conducted a burn on a 1,000-acre plot in the Chestnut Ridge area.

The burn was conducted over several days, beginning March 6 and concluding March 11.

According to Brad Wright, Emergency Management Coordinator for Pulaski County, he and the Pulaski Fire Department were in close coordination with the burn managers from the U.S. Forest Service during the event.

Wright said the objective of the controlled burn was to:

  • Lower the risk of wildfires
  • Improve wildlife habitat
  • Improve vegetative diversity and promote oak regeneration

The U.S. Forest Service, Wright said, would like to repeat the burns every 3 to 10 years.

“The U.S. Forest Service was the lead agency since most of it was on their land, the Town of Pulaski Fire Department also assisted as some of the land burned was Town property around Gatewood. The Virginia Department of Forestry also took part in the burn as well as Pulaski County Emergency Management,” Wright noted.

“This was a joint project between these agencies as a Cross Boundaries project under the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy,” which Wright noted was the first of its kind in Virginia.

“It took roughly 12 hours to complete the burn once it was started. Ignition was done by hand and Arial (helicopter) methods.  There is one additional burn unit still to do this spring if we get the right weather conditions,” Wright added.

Wright said there was no control issues with the burn and was done under the right weather condition with the proper control methods and resources on hand under the supervision of experienced fire managers.