County cheers Forestry’s rangers’ unit of year award

Published 5:39 pm Friday, November 25, 2011

The Decatur County unit of the Georgia Forestry Commission was recognized for solid performance this year, as they were named the Southern Unit of the Year for the GFC.

Ranger Van Smith of the Decatur County unit of the GFC briefed the Decatur County Board of Commissioners at their Tuesday meeting, detailing the forest rangers’ award and also recounting the events of the past year.

Smith said that Decatur County has 399,040 acres of land, of which 255,200 is forested acreage — approximately 64 percent. In fiscal year 2011 (FY11), which ran from July 1, 2010, to June 31, 2011, the unit responded to 117 wildfires, which burnt 371.96 acres — an average wildfire size of 3.18 acres. The largest wildfire of the year burnt 87.2 acres, and the unit also assisted in five out-of-county wildfires.

The unit issued 7,800 permits for 63,000 acres, sold 434,000 seedlings. The unit collected six gallons of Dogwood seed and 18 gallons of persimmon seed.

While much of the unit’s duty stems from out-of-control wildfires, the unit also assists the Department of Natural Resources with its regular prescribed burns. In FY11, the unit completed four “burn assists” that covered prescribed burning of 148 acres. The unit also assisted DNR on a 2,000-plus-acre control burn on land in the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area.

The unit also is active in fire prevention, by installing and maintaining fire breaks and other preventative measures. In FY11, the unit plowed 59.55 miles of fire breaks, and harrowed another 1,076.5 miles of fire breaks. Decatur County’s unit consistently plows and harrows more than 1,100 miles every year.

Smith also discussed how Decatur County’s rangers have assisted with other environmental disasters throughout the Southeast. Personnel were deployed a total of 79 days to assist with out-of-county incidents, he said. Chief Ranger Rodney Heard traveled to north Georgia to assist with tornado damage cleanup, and was also a “strike team leader” for swamp fires in the state.

Ranger Johnny Barwick worked on the British Petroleum oil spill clean-up and assisted with swamp fires, while Smith and Ranger Bryan Cottles have been to swamp fires as tractor operators.

Smith also pointed out that the unit continues to maintain a positive presence in the schools, providing education and entertainment with its famous “Smokey the Bear” costume.

“I’d say that after Santa Claus, Smokey might be the most famous person in the Christmas parade each year,” Smith said. “The kids love him, and we know we’re teaching them important information.”

Under the supervision of Chief Ranger Rodney Heard, the unit has four full-time employees — Heard and Rangers Van Smith, John Barwick and Bryan Cottles — and one mitigation specialist, Tina Nix. They maintain and operate three tractor-plow vehicles and one four-by-four quick-response vehicle. As weather dictates, the unit patrols the county twice each day in search of wildfires.

“Our goal is to conserve, perpetuate, and increase the forest resources of the state and county and to enhance or improve the economic and aesthetic benefits to all citizens,” Smith said.

For more information about the Decatur County unit of the GFC, call (229) 248-2616 or visit online at www.gatrees.org.

The GFC maintains an online burn permitting system that automatically ensures safe weather conditions for outdoor burning. Visit www.gatrees.org online to use the system; burn permit requests can also be made by phone at 1-877-OK2-BURN (1-877-652-2876).