Originally created 03/12/06

Where we live



If you see smoke in Aiken and a sign that says "Burning in the woods today," don't worry; Hitchcock Woods isn't burning to the ground.

There's a reason for the burning of the United States' largest urban forest, at more than 2,000 acres.

It all began back in the mid-1980s when The Hitchcock Foundation was looking to raise money for the woods.

Harvesting timber brought in the money and thinned the woods, which in turn brought new growth. Control burns began to encourage new growth and cut down on fuel that could cause a major fire if left unattended.

Billy Hillstead was brought in for the job. He came to Aiken for two weeks and began nighttime burnings.

In 1993, the foundation hired Gary Burger to manage the woods. That's when the burn became more of a science, and those rules still are in place.

The woods are divided into 50 compartments, which are put on staggered schedules. Each compartment gets a three- to five-year cycle. The burns are scheduled during the nongrowing season in the winter.

In the summer, there is more of a chance burns will kill hardwood trees. Winter is also the best time to manage smoke.

Wind is another consideration. The best burning days occur when the wind isn't too strong and is blowing into the woods, helping fuel the flames and keep the smoke from spreading to neighborhoods.

And since the burning began, wildlife in the woods has flourished.

Harry Shealy, the president of the Hitchcock Foundation, says every living thing in the woods has a better chance of survival.

"Fire is good in the right places," he says. "Fire brings more diversity to the woods."

Gary Burger starts fires in Hitchcock Woods in Aiken to clear out fallen debris from trees. Mr. Burger began managing the urban forest in 1993 and has started a forestry business.