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Fort Riley Uses Prescribed Fire for More than Ecosystem Management

By Unknown | DPW.ENV | May 15, 2009

A match is lit, and a quick puff of black smoke rises up from the drip torch. The wildland fire managers of Fort Riley, Kansas, are set to begin one of many prescribed burns scheduled for the year.

Prescribed fire in the Flint Hills of Kansas is common from mid to late spring. Ranchers frequently burn their pastures to invigorate the grasses and forbs that are a critical part of their livelihood. The Fort Riley Directorate of Public Works takes to the field to accomplish the same goal but for a variety of additional reasons.

Fire has played an important role in the development and maintenance of the tallgrass prairie of Kansas. Prehistorically, Native Americans intentionally lit fires to attract grazing animals and to occasionally herd them as a hunting advantage. Lightning strikes during spring and summer thunderstorms also caused wildfires that may have burned thousands of acres at a time.

These occasional fires served to keep woodlands confined mostly to gallery-type forests that lined rivers and streams. Removal of previous years' growth also provided attractive forage for large grazing animals that were critical to the survival of Native Americans.

Prescribed fire planning begins in midsummer when priorities for burning are identified. Most of these plans serve to accomplish a primary goal of the installation's Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan. This specific goal states that all prairie areas on post are to be burned at least two years out of every five. This burn serves a dual purpose — to reduce the likelihood of a wildfire and to maintain the vigor of Fort Riley's training platform, the tallgrass prairie.

In recent years, burn requests have increased, reaching beyond maintenance of the prairie to include support of mission-critical elements, such as preconstruction activities, blackening of known firing points, and archeological and unexploded ordnance surveys.

Proper timing is often the most critical element in achieving the desired outcome. The timing can be affected by weather, fuel conditions and the availability of each training area. In addition, smoke management has become a critical element to minimize air quality concerns with neighbors.

The first and foremost concern is troop safety. Military training activities can and do cause wildfires and, if sufficient fuel exists, those wildfires can endanger troops and equipment. Prescribed burning removes excess fuel that effectively decreases the frequency and intensity of wildfires.

The highest priority burns are those that produce a firebreak effect. Most important is the annual burning of medians that effectively split Fort Riley's training areas into quadrants. This provides a secondary containment measures for burn crews and provides adequate protection from spot fires jumping over the roadway.

Annual prescribed burning plays an increasingly important role in providing a safe, sustainable training platform. The community of plant species that adapted to prolonged droughts, occasional wildfires and intensive grazing by enormous herds of bison also provide a sustainable training platform for heavy mechanized training. Even as training missions change, the prescribed fire mission will continue to play an important role at Fort Riley.

POC is Mark Neely, 785-239-6693, mark.neely@us.army.mil.

Mark Neely is an installation wild land fire management specialist, Directorate of Public

Works, Fort Riley

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