Forest Service fights fire with fire

Published 6:00 am Friday, March 18, 2005

MEADVILLE – Helicopters often serve a vital role in putting outforest fires. This month in the Homochitto National Forest, theflying machines are being used to set small fires in an effort toprevent out-of-control blazes in the future.

U.S. Forest Service crew members and a contracted pilot beganprescribed burning earlier this month. The local work is scheduledto go on through April 10.

“It’s all about burning undergrowth in the pine plantation,”said Paul Walters, a pilot with Skylane Helicopters of Decatur,Texas.

Lee Dunnam and Terry Owen, timber sale administrators for theforest service, double as crew members in the fire program aboutthree months out of the year. One coordinates flying plans with thepilot while the other operates a machine dropping chemical-filledpingpong ball-like spheres to start the fires.

“We usually drop four to six balls per acre,” Owen said.

The spheres contain a small amount of potassium premanganate,Owen said. As the spheres are dropped from a hopper, they areinjected with antifreeze to produce a delayed chemical reactionthat ignites the fire on the ground.

“We can increase the chemical interaction or decrease to givethe kind of reaction we want,” Dunnam said.

On the ground, a crew of six to 20 members has established firelines and monitors the fire as it burns the prescribed areas.

“They’re there patrolling once they’ve got the area prepped,”Dunnam said.

The helicopter crew members cited a number of benefits to theprescribed burning efforts. Among them are reduction of parasiticplant growth and ash remains that help with fertilization.

“Thirdly, it makes it more difficult for an arsonist to startfires in the forest,” Walters said.

Dunnam said the prescribed burns clear areas for new growth tohelp turkey and deer populations. The burns also remove brush,debris and other material that could help fuel a forest fire.

“If you don’t burn in good conditions, you can get wildfires inbad conditions,” Dunnam said.

Recent cold and rainy conditions have hampered prescribedburning activities to certain degree. Dunnam said crews need twofull days of sun to get conditions right for flying activity.

“We’re waiting on the weather. We’ve done some burning, but it’sbeen hand burning,” said Dunnam, referring to prescribed handled byground crews.

The weather, however, has not grounded the helicopter.

“Today it’s mostly about training,” Walters said aboutThursday’s flying.

Walters assisted with training other forest service employees towork on the helicopter crew.

The pilot himself practiced with the water bucket to be ready tohelp with extinguishing fire elsewhere this summer. He alsopracticed with cargo hauling techniques to assist fire crews on theground.

Crew members stressed the importance of safety briefings. Airand ground crews take part in safety and mission briefings and aircrew members also familiarize themselves with the helicopter.

“It matters not how many times you’ve done it,” Dunnam saidabout the safety and other briefings. “You do the briefing everytime to get in the ship in order to not get complacent.”

Dunnam and Owen said about one million acres of forest landswere prescribed burned last year in Region 8, which includes 16southeastern states from Texas to the east coast.

Of that total, over 250,000 acres were burned in national forestlands in Mississippi. Walters said prescribed burning in otherareas of the state began in January and is expected to end May31.

Bob Schmidt, helicopter manager with the forest service, saidthe service’s goal is to prescribe burn about 40,000-50,000 acres ayear in the Homochitto National Forest. The forest is about 200,000acres.

“They try to do in a two to three year rotation,” said Mary BellLunsford, public affairs officer for the forest service.