News>Center lights the way for Air Force wildland fire management
A Type 1 helicopter carries 2,000 gallons of water to a wildfire at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The "runway" fire burned nearly 3,000 acres, but didn't result in any lost structures or other Air Force assets. Each year, more than 1,000 wildland fires occur on Air Force property. The Wildland Fire Center, part of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, was established to help Air Force installations manage wildland fire risk. (Courtesy Photo)
Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., undergoes a prescribed burn to reduce fuels behind a private subdivision that borders the base. Such prescribed burns also help sustain unique old-growth longleaf pine forests which depend on frequent fires to reduce competition and encroachment from other species. These types of controlled burns are implemented by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Wildland Fire Center to help installations mitigate risk. (Courtesy Photo)
7/25/2014 - JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Each year, more than 1,000 wildland fires occur on Air Force lands, burning more than 300,000 acres in some years. The number of extreme wildfires has been on the rise over the past two decades, accompanied by soaring suppression costs and significant risk to Air Force property and even Airmen themselves.
To address this issue, the Wildland Fire Center, part of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, was officially established July 1, 2012, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to provide the guidance, expertise and oversight required by the Air Force and its installations to manage wildland fire risk and sustain the Air Force mission nationwide.
"Wildfire response capabilities on Department of Defense lands are critical on most installations and ranges due to the large numbers of wildfire ignitions resulting from the test and training missions and exposure along our interface with wildland fuels," said Kevin Hiers, chief of the Wildland Fire Center. "Suppression costs in the Air Force are averaging more than $15 million per year, with increasing potential at numerous installations for large expensive wildfires."
The center focuses on five core functions to address wildland fire risk: planning and risk mitigation, training and qualifications, supporting fire operations, serving as the source for Air Force wildland fire subject matter expertise, and fire reporting analysis.
"Prescribed burns are a critical way of reducing wildland fire risk," Hiers said.
By performing controlled burns, fire fighters reduce the fuel source for wildfires and minimize the risk of damage on Air Force controlled land. Prescribed burns and vegetation management may also allow Air Force missions to continue throughout periods of high fire danger.
"Fires are inevitable on military training ranges," said Kevin Porteck, AFCEC natural resources subject matter expert. "Through proactive wildland management, including controlled burns, the severity and intensity of wildfires are greatly reduced and more easily controlled."
Eglin itself is home to one of the nation's most active prescribed burn programs, which presents many training opportunities, not only for Air Force and other Defense Department agencies, but for other organizations as well, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the U.S. Forest Service.
Once trainees arrive at the center, the staff assesses their skills and provides them with classroom and practical instruction in wildland firefighting operations and planning. This includes ATV training, chainsaw usage, bulldozing and other tactics used to combat wildfires. Unlike structural firefighting, wildfire fighting focuses on containing the fire, rather than extinguishing it.
In addition to training, the center also visits individual installations to help evaluate and mitigate wildfire risk. To a large extent, successfully managing wildland fire depends on cooperation with other organizations, such as the Bureau of Land Management, USFS and USFWS.
"Assisting individual installations in meeting their goals and objectives through a 'boots on the ground' approach is a key tool in helping the center meet its objective of mitigating wildland fire risk across the Air Force," said James Furman, a USFS liaison to the Air Force. "The interactions between our personnel and those at the different installations builds trust and gives us a better understanding of other ways we can provide assistance."
Since its inception, the Air Force Wildland Fire Center has provided, through cooperative agreements, prescribed fire, fuels management and wildfire response assistance at 15 installations, performed dozens of installation site visits, and has reviewed 50 installation-level wildland fire management plans.
The center has also created an Air Force-wide database of wildland fire qualified civilians as well as an Air Force Wildland Fire Management System to provide information to installations and leadership.
Through the center's active training program and focused installation support, wildland fire risk can be reduced, Hiers said.
"Partnering and working with our installation teams, as well as other organization like USFS and USFWS, will help us minimize wildland fire risk to our Airmen and the Air Force mission itself," Hiers said.