July 13, 2022

I got a text last night from a friend asking if we had been affected by the wildfire reported to be burning on the northeast side of our town.  I had neither seen nor smelled the fire when I was outside, but Melissa said the smoke was affecting her breathing.  County officials said the large fire that started at Fort Chaffee on Tuesday was 85% to 90% contained as of this morning.  Our mayor said residents on Hilltop Drive were evacuated for several hours because of the fire, but they were able to return later that night.  The area was still smoky this morning and small smolders could still be seen.  The Sheriff’s Office and local police are providing active patrols to make sure the fire stays contained.  Apparently, a “fire maneuver” (a prescribed burn) got out of hand at Fort Chaffee and spread up to the Hilltop neighborhood.  The county remains under a burn ban until further notice because of the heat and dry conditions.

When I looked online, I found that prescribed burns, or purposefully setting fire to woodlands and brush land, has long been an accepted practice in forest management to prevent future unwanted wildfires.  The US Forest Service cites three reasons for the practice.  The prescribed burn is used to clear the underbrush that can fuel a later fire, the burn adds nutrients back to the soil, and the burn promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plants.  Even when they are carefully planned, prescribed burns can get out of control.  The Forest Service did a study of prescribed burns several years ago and found three common reasons firefighters lost control of the flames.  The first was starting the controlled burn during a drought.  Second was poor communication among the firefighters.  Finally, was underestimating the amount of fuel (brush and debris) on the forest floor.  The Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils report less than 2% of prescribed burns get out of control, and most of those are minor spillovers.

When I worked at the convention center in Kansas, we returned 10 of our 61 acres back to Tall Grass Prairie.  We placed signs explaining the prairie ecosystem and cut trails through the grass to allow visitors to observe the flora (plant) and fauna (animal) as the grasses would be up to six feet tall.  We also burned the acres every other year as part of their natural life cycle.  Prior to the prescribed burn we would make sure to cut breaks around the outside of the fields and water down the mown grass.  We also had a crew of six volunteers and support vehicles to monitor the burn.  Despite precautions, one year the pampas grass the next door owner used to mark their property caught fire from the heat of the prescribed burn.  We were able to get the fire out and only burned an area of about 10 square yards (9m2).  We reseeded the area with grass and replanted two trees from our property.  They seemed fine.

THOUGHTS:  When our prescribed burn got out of control it was one of the scariest moments of my life.  I was sitting next to the area and the ATV I was riding ran out of gas just as it all happened.  I was sitting on the trail and the heat of the flames were lapping at my face.  I finally jumped off the ATV and ran out of the flames.  As I thought back on the burn, it was never close to getting out of control, but fire can be very unpredictable.  While there is always that 2% chance of a prescribed burn getting out of control, the benefits outweigh the risk, and can help suppress future fires.  My niece serves in a covid ward at a large hospital and has remarked on the people wanting to get the vaccine now that they have covid.  Being proactive with a burn is no different than being proactive in health care.  Both require people to make the right choices in advance.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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