A perfect day to burn

Published 4:37 pm Friday, February 6, 2009

If you saw a lot of smoke filling the sky on Thursday, it’s because it was a perfect day to burn woods and farmlands in Decatur County, with low winds generally coming from the north and humidity relatively low.

And one of the largest controlled burns was one on approximately 3,500 acres that included some of the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area tracts, Fort Scott Island and other smaller islands scattered around Lake Seminole.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources brought in a four-man helicopter crew Thursday that used small ping-pong-type balls used as incendiaries that are launched from the helicopter. This method burned approximately 1,288 acres of the Hog Farm Tract, approximately 1,200 acres of the islands and the remaining acreage on the Silver Lake and Lake Seminole Wildlife Management areas.

“I’m very pleased with how it all turned out,” said Brian Vickery, the field supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources who conducted the burn. “It was absolutely perfect.”

Vickery said Thursday’s controlled burn was one of the largest completed in Georgia during one day and the largest that the helicopter pilot—Stephen Turner from Atlanta area—had personally conducted.

Others involved included a 14-member ground crew. Among that crew were four college graduates from western states who are interning with DNR and spending part of their tenure helping conduct DNR control burns that included the Silver Lake tracts and approximately 200 acres at Seminole State Park in Seminole County.

Some of the tracts burned Thursday had heavy fuel loads, which means that underbrush and leaf litter had accumulated for at least five years.

These heavy fuel loads could become very destructive if a wildlife should ever ignite, from lightning strikes or other sources, said Chuck Crews of the DNR.

About the birds

Many of the nesting areas of the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers who live around Silver Lake were burned by hand earlier in the year, but some were on the tracts that were burned Thursday.

Hand crews raked around the trees containing the birds’ cavities. Because the birds live in trees where sap runs down the bark, biologists have to be careful during control burns not to catch those trees on fire, because they could burn into the cavities or damage the tree because of the presence of sap.

Vickery said Friday that one of the trees did burn; however, the DNR biologist monitoring the endangered species said two months’ time will tell if the tree or nest was damaged to the point a red-cockaded woodpecker couldn’t use it.

Also, Vickery said less than one percent of fire reached above the trees’ crowns, which means the fire didn’t get too hot.

Local Georgia Forestry Ranger Van Smith, who escorted The Post-Searchlight throughout the area, said he had never seen a helicopter used in this method of a control burn other than when he helped fight the large Waycross swamp fire two years ago. The Forestry unit wasn’t involved in the burn other than to issue a permit and to be on stand-by.

Smith said a good controlled burn will put off white smoke, which means the understory and underbrush are burning well. However, when a fire starts giving off a lot of black smoke, the fire is growing too hot, which can damage pine trees and eventually could lead to the pine trees becoming infested with insects and ultimately dying.