Fort Gordon uses controlled burns to protect base, wildlife

The hazy smoke that drifts out of Fort Gordon on a near weekly basis draws a number of complaints from communities in Richmond and Columbia counties, but the department behind the wilderness fires says it’s a necessary process to keep the post safe and protect its wildlife.

A behind-the-scenes tour Thursday of a 55-acre fire in Training Area No. 18 showed that each fire starts with careful planning, some of it months in advance.

The Fort Gordon that most people are familiar with – the barracks, classrooms, restaurants – sits on a roughly 4,000-acre tract in the far east corner of the post. The bulk of the Army post, though, is more than 27,000 acres of forest that’s home to numerous wildlife and endangered species.

The chief reason for the burns is to clear out the underbrush and make the areas accessible for training. On Thursday morning, the distant pop of gunfire was audible before it was replaced with the crackle of fire.

Fort Gordon’s Natural Resources Branch also sets fires to replicate the natural cycle of wildfires that clear out thick underbrush. The ashes foster new growth and reduce the groundcover that blocks out sunlight for new growth. It also reduces the fuel that would make a regular wildfire an inferno that threatens homes.

“It’s a win-win,” said Steven Camp, a woodland firefighter and biologist. He paused and watched the gray smoke rise and sift through the needles of tall pine trees. “Except for the smoke, of course.”

Though the smoke is far from popular, Robert Drumm, the chief of the Natural Resources Branch, explained the planning that goes into their efforts to avoid bothering the general public.

The decision to start or cancel the fire is made in the morning after examining weather conditions. Humidity, wind speed and wind direction all have a major impact on that decision.

Drumm held a computer-generated map Thursday with a yellow cone that indicated the projected path of the smoke. The cone avoided Gordon Highway and ended somewhere between Harlem and Grovetown.

When a small test fire confirmed the wind direction, Drumm’s staff ignited the perimeter of the acreage with drip torches that sprayed a combination of diesel and gasoline over a flaming wick. Within seconds, small flames were crawling into the forest, leaving behind a blackened carpet of leaves and grass.

As Drumm studied the fire’s progress, he commented on the balance of satisfying the needs of the Army, the public and wildlife officials.

“We try to strike a happy medium,” he said.

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