Prescribed Burns on Fort Riley Preserve Tallgrass Prairie Environment, Prevent Wildfires

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Fort Riley Henry Gate
Fort Riley Henry Gate. (U.S. Army photo/Margaret Ziffer)

Anyone who sees pillars of smoke rising from Fort Riley need not worry -- the post is likely just conducting another of its prescribed burns, something it does for a large part of the year, according to Wildland Fire Manager Steve Wahle.

As of Jan. 1, 5,099 acres of grassland have been set ablaze in controlled burns on post. About 12,000 acres were burned over the winter months.

Fort Riley's burn plan is a working plan, according to Wahle, and is subject to change as-needed and according to the objectives behind each individual burn.

"We look at what our objectives are, why we want to burn those areas," he said.

It could be for cultural purposes, for natural resource purposes, or to mitigate possible wildfire during training on post.

"The Army starts fires," Wahle said. "They utilize things that go boom and start fires and so one of the ways that we help mitigate that wildfire potential is by coming up with a prescribed burn plan and by using fire breaks and fuel breaks."

The main reason to is maintain the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

"We live in tallgrass prairie here in Kansas, and it's a fire-dependent ecosystem," Wahle said. "It requires fire and if it doesn't get fire it basically turns into a woodland."

At this time, the goal is to burn 30,000 acres per year.

According to Wahle, prescribed burns have a long history in Kansas, dating back even to prehistoric times.

"There's evidence that that the people that used to inhabit this area used to start fires for management purposes," he said.

Most such burns typically take place in spring, around April. For air quality reasons, Fort Riley tends to conduct its burns during other parts of the year.

Wahle said typically burning on post starts around late August or early September and runs until some time in spring.

Burning when it does offers Fort Riley a chance to take out some unwanted weeds.

"We have some noxious weeds that that don't like fire that are really set back during that timeframe," Wahle said. "So if we have areas on the installation that have this specific plant will try to burn those areas during that time frame."

A lot goes into planning burns on Fort Riley, including considerations of weather and fuel loads, which can change depending on how much moisture the area has experienced. The Fort Riley Fire Department has several wild land firefighters on staff to help with prescribed burns.

"if I'm looking to go out and do a prescribed burn today, I'm looking at the wind, I'm looking at the relative humidity and that gives me an idea of how that fuel's going to react," he said.

According to Wahle, the Fort Riley team is unique in its composition. He is both part of Fort Riley's environmental staff and part of the post's fire department, operating as one of its command staff.

"The Army is moving towards having a program a lot like what we have here at Fort Riley where the wildland fire program is made up of both the environmental division and the DTS emergency services," he said.

Environmentalists Josh Pease and Mike Houck work with Wahle in this respect..

They've worked on prescribed burns a lot over the years, according to Pease.

"We used to do a lot more large acreages and like whole areas would be black and out in a in a time," he said. "And now we've gone to more of a like this area may be burnt, this area may be left this area may be burned -- that kind of systematic approach to it, rather than 'let's just burn everything out in here.' And the wildlife responds to that differently as well because it gives them an opportunity to have refuge in an area that isn't affected by fire."

According to Houck, patch burning the way Fort Riley does it these days is good to prevent the spread of fire because it can be used to create fire breaks.

"When we're in there, working ahead of time, we can figure out where our dangerous spots are and we can incorporate into our planning," he said. "if a unit, for example is going to be using these areas here very heavily for training, there's going to be a good chance that they're going to cause some inadvertent fire -- wildfire -- through their activities."

Patch burning can allow the training area to be hemmed in by burned areas to prevent accidental fires from growing out of control and spreading.

According to Pease, some of those areas still may catch fire, but they won't burn with the same intensity, mitigating the wildfire.

Controlled burns can escape control and so safety precautions are in place.

According to Pease, a fire can generate its own weather.

"A fire, depending on the size of it, can create its own weather," he said. "Just like a chimney effect. Like if you've lit a fire in a chimney. If you've noticed the hot air rises and gets sucked out the chimney. Well it's drawing a lot of air in from the bottom to feed that and a fire works the same way. If you've got this area and you've got a lot of deep fuels and it's burning real hot, that air is moving up and moving out real quick. Well, that creates a void in the bottom and has to be filled and so fresh air is sucked in from the sides -- just like in a chimney -- and feeds that that vacuum. And it can it can drive itself."

Not burning isn't an option, according to Wahle, because prescribed burns prevent wildfires such as the ones experienced by California in recent years. Wildfires can happen for any reason, so a burn plan isn't a foolproof way of protecting oneself from a fire, but Wahle said it does help.

"You'll see a greater amount of wildfire -- a greater impact from wildfire -- as as we grow not just here in Kansas but all over the US," he said. "As we grow, we're increasing the amount of urbanization in our natural areas. And you'll you see a lot more wildland urban interface fires."

This article is written by Lydia Kautz Author email from Junction City Daily Union, Kan. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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