Officials use controlled burns to keep artillery fields clear

By Maura Wery

A group of Fort Riley firefighters and biologists stand in an artillery field. The field is barren except for gold grasses towering over shorter green blades just budding out of the earth.

One of the biologists walks walks along the edge of the field with a drip torch. Small drops of fire fall off the end, igniting the ground below. Within seconds, rows of flames engulf the grasses, leaving only the green behind.

The process — called controlled or prescribed burning — took place at Fort Riley on Wednesday, and it is happening in similar fields all over the area this month, said Mark Neely, wildland program manager and prescribed burn overseer at Fort Riley.

“This state has a rich history in burning,” Neely said. “There have been generations of people who have learned to burn.”

The fire department burns around 101,000 acres a year and does so for two reasons: one is safety. Neely said that most of the grasses on the base are native to the area, and when they die and dry out, they become fuel for a potential fire.

“They become a hazard to recreationalists and soldiers training,” Neely said. He noted that the areas behind targets are especially volatile.

“They put tanks on these tracks,” Neely said. “They shoot at them, and when they hit these grasses they can set on fire.”

The second reason is conservation. The fields surrounding Fort Riley are rich with wildlife and native plants. The burns allow the prairie that surrounds the base to stay exactly as it is.

“We want to keep the prairie as prairie,” Neely said. “If we don’t burn, it can turn into forest, and we don’t want that.” Neely also said that burning also helps deter the growth of noxious weeds that could cause problems for the native plants.

To some, it may seem that controlled burning is an easy task, but in reality, it is carefully calculated. Neely said that the planning for the burns begins months before they actually happen.

“We get requests from around the base for burn sites,” Neely said. “Once we get all of them in, we create a burn map for the season.”

Once the map is created, the department decides the order for the burns —most are 500-600 acres at a time. But one factor affects almost everything involved: the weather.

“We don’t burn with winds over 15 miles per hour and with a humidity below 25 percent,” Neely said. If the humidity is too high, the grass won’t burn; too low, the grasses will literally explode when set on fire and the flames could get out of hand. Neely said other elements of weather also affect burning, such as cloud cover and wind changing direction.

Once the weather is checked and deemed feasible for burning, the crew heads out.

“We have a briefing before we go out,” Neely said. The burn on Wednesday featured a crew of eight, the usual amount for Neely, and will burn around 300 acres. The crew uses fire trucks and a fleet of ATVs to help in searching the area before the burn.

“We have to check the area before we start,” Neely said. “We call each partner before we go out and confirm there is no training or recreation going.”

After the area is checked and canvassed, the group meets again for a more in-depth briefing. They go over weather conditions and safety procedures. Neely said that each person out there has to have an exit plan if the fire gets out of control. Neely said that those fires are few and far between, but he always wants to stay on his toes in case it does.

The department is also reaching out to its regional partners outside the post to help with its burns. Fort Riley already worked with the Kansas Forest Service and Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks for prescribed burns.

But Fort Riley Fire Chief Scott DeLay worked to bring in the state conservation department for the burns and is now trying to bring in surrounding fire departments to build a regional relationship, Neely said. The goal is that if things do get out of hand in the future, neighboring fire departments can be called for backup.

“We could be facing another really active fire season,” Neely said. “We want to make it seamless and work more efficiently with them over time.”

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