USFS

Thanks to a huge fire, smoke filled the skies northwest of Houston last week.

But the blaze wasn’t accidental; it was because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service division was conducting a huge “prescribed burn” on Thursday and Friday.

The 3,200-acre burn zone was targeted as part of the “Boiling Springs Project,” a 6,750-acre forest restoration effort begun in 2014 with the goal of returning a significant portion of the Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF) closer to the way it was before the arrival of settlers as the U.S. spread west in the 1800s. MTNF Houston/Rolla/Cedar Creek district ranger Kimberly Bittle said part of restoring a forest means bringing back fire, which long ago would naturally bring nutrients to the soil and prevent the ground from becoming covered with a virtual carpet consisting of pine and leaf “litter.”

“We’re putting fire back into the landscape,” Bittle said, “that was once there years ago.”

MTNF Zone 3 fuels technician Michael Kelly, who acted as the project’s supervisor (or “burn boss”), said fire also eliminates dead trees and other “dead-and-down” material that’s detrimental to the overall health of a forest.

“Nature had a way of periodically cleaning up the mess,” Kelly said. “Once settlers came into the area, they changed the landscape, and with that they brought in fire suppression. But there’s a benefit to fire; anybody who owns property or pastureland understands that doing a burn once in a while really helps that next season. We see the same thing and we use fire as a management tool.

“People do the same thing in their yards by raking up leaves and burning them. Our yard just happened to be 3,200 acres.”

Kelly said more than 40 Forest Service fire technicians worked the burn, including MTNF staff members and others from Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico, California and South Dakota. 

Burning ground litter

A line of flames moves through the base of a wooded area as part of a prescribed burn Thursday in Mark Twain National Forest land northwest of Houston.

Also involved was an MTNF bulldozer and a “Helitack” chopper and crew. The aircraft’s task was to employ a “plastic sphere dispenser” (PSD) apparatus in the middle of the giant tract. The PSD basically drops balls filled with a dry chemical that are injected with a specialized liquid before being dropped that creates a reaction and causes them to ignite when they reach ground level.

The Helitack program is hosted by the MTNF, and the aircraft is on contract from a private vendor. 

“It really saves our firefighter exposure on the ground,” Kelly said. “We treated almost seven square miles with prescribed fire and walking all that isn’t very practical. It’s a difficult mission for the pilot, because it’s what they consider ‘low and slow.’ But they can cover a lot of territory very quickly and it saves us from having to send six to a dozen folks into the forest carrying fire with them.”

While the chopper starts flames moving in the interior, manpower works the perimeter.

“It keeps us on the edges so we can keep the fire contained,” Kelly said. 

Despite stormy, wet weather that inundated the area late Thursday afternoon, Kelly felt the burn effort was a success.

Flames on the move

Flames move through a power line strip during a prescribed burn last week northwest of Houston.

“The smoke transported in the direction we wanted, and it got up off the ground quickly and stayed high before it dispersed,” he said. “But the March weather in Missouri likes to throw a curveball at us with pop-up storms, and by the end of the afternoon we were all looking for shelter in our trucks from lots of rain and hail.

“But I give the National Weather Service credit; they said there was a possibility of that happening and they were on the phone with us right away giving us about a 45-minute heads-up before it hit our area.”

Ignition of the fire was at about 10 a.m. Thursday. A dozen crewmembers returned Friday with fire engines and ATVs.

“We have a lot of perimeter to cover and not all of it is drivable road,” Kelly said. “When we prepare for these burns, we decide where the perimeter is going to be and cut down dead trees and make an area wide enough for responders to have a way in and out. And when the fire reaches that control feature, that’s where it usually stops.”

The burn was executed in a “mosaic pattern.” 

“That results in about 40 to 60 percent in black,” Kelly said. “That’s more natural; think of a lightning strike and how the fire just kind of goes where it’s available to go. That’s what we’re trying to mimic.”

The Boiling Springs Project area is located south of Highway 32, east of Highway 17 and dissected by Boiling Springs Road. The project is expected to take 5-to-10 years to complete from its implementation. Detailed information about it is available online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/mtnf (click “land resources management” and “projects”).

Smoky sky

Smoke fills the sky beyond Houston Memorial Airport last Thursday due to a prescribed burn being conducted by the U.S. Forest Service near Boiling Springs Road northwest of Houston.

 

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