A long-awaited controlled burn went off without a hitch Friday as wildland firefighters torched 28 acres near the center on Commerce Highway.
Athens-Clarke County officials for months have been waiting for the perfect day, and Friday was it, or very close to it.
The soil was a little more moist than they’d like, which meant the fire wouldn’t burn as deep, said fire boss Robert Simmons, owner of Integrated Forest and Wildlife Management Inc., the contractor the Athens-Clarke government appointed to manage the day’s controlled burn, also called “prescribed fire.”
More than 60 men and women gathered on a road near the nature center Friday morning to hear final safety instructions from Simmons, state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Shan Cammack and Payton Turner, chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission district that includes Athens.
Then about a dozen of them, including Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jared Bailey, went out under the supervision of Cammack, who’d trained many of them in wildland firefighting. Then the methodically moved through the forest with drip torches dribbling a mixture of about two-thirds diesel fuel and one third gasoline in lines that became moving firewalls as they ignited the drip-torch fuel.
The main worry wasn’t the fire getting out of control; conditions were near-perfect, and Simmons deploys far fewer people on burns many times larger. For weeks, volunteers have been cutting back on undergrowth and otherwise getting the area ready for the burn.
There were even two drone operators there to document the day with high-flying video cameras – Tommy Jordan of the University of Georgia’s Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping Science, and Kelsey Norris of Southeast Drone, an Athens-Area company that specializes in commercial drone applications.
“We feel very comfortable with safety today,” Simmons said.
“I do not expect a high-intensity burn,” Turner said. “My biggest concern is smoke management. I’m not expecting a ton of smoke off this, but if this smoke starts changing direction and it goes into Clarke County, we’re done.”
The breeze blew fairly steadily to the north and west, which was where they wanted it to go. If it had shifted toward the east, smoke could have created dangerous driving conditions on nearby U.S. Highway 441, the Commerce Highway. With wind around 8 miles per hour, the smoke mainly just went straight up.
“The smoke’s doing exactly what I want it to,” Turner said.
Officials especially wanted to get this one right because it could help pave the way for future controlled burns in other areas off Athens Clarke-government-owned property where fire could do some good, such as improving wildlife habitat or removing low-lying debris and brush that could be fuel for some future accidental wildfire.
Friday’s was the first controlled burn on government property in Clarke County in decades, maybe the first one ever, and it was important to get it right, said Mike Wharton, operations administrator for the Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services Department.
It was also a chance to learn for many who came to help or watch. The U.S. Forest Service sent a group to help, as did Athens-Clarke police, for example; Athens-Clarke and state transportation workers also came to help. The Athens-Clarke County Fire Department also sent a large contingent, bringing along two big fire trucks, just in case.
Friday’s burn was the first stage of a long-term managed forest project, intended to both improve wildlife habitat and teach nature center visitors how forests change over time, called succession.
The management plan will divide an area a little larger than the burn up into five tracts – four of pinewoods, one of hardwoods. Three of those four pine tracts will be planted, as foresters do in commercially managed forests, and one will be left to naturally reseed.
The burn also helps expand a small piedmont prairie area near the nature center building to about an acre, Wharton said.
Sometime in the next few weeks, a portion of the pine tracts will be clear-cut. The management plan calls for a rotation in which timber is harvested from one of the three planted tracts, followed in about 15 years by another harvest in another of the three tracts, and so on.
The timber harvest won’t be huge but will help defray the cost of launching the managed forest project, he said.
Nature Center officials are hoping the burn will help bring back some creatures that used to be more common in this area when forests remained wild and wildfire was part of the natural cycle.
Forests in this part of the world are adapted to periodic burning, and some tree species even need fire to reproduce. Humans have suppressed the natural fire cycle, however, with unanticipated consequences such as eliminating some kinds of plants and animals that grew naturally here.
Nature Center facilities manager Randy Smith hopes to see ground-nesting birds such as quail, for example. Forests in different stages of development attract different sorts of wildlife, he said.
The Georgia Forestry Association supports forest management on public land and encourages efforts such as those described here at the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Click here to view the Association’s position on State Forestland Ownership.