JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
Firefighters from the 502nd Civil Engineer Squadron, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Joint Base San Antonio Fire Emergency Services and two area fire departments conducted a controlled burn at JBSA-Camp Bullis Feb. 22-24 to clear the installation of vegetation that could ignite a wildfire.
Twenty-two firefighters helped to burn more than 600 acres at the installation during the three-day period, enduring hot, dry and windy conditions, along with temperatures that soared into the 90s.
Rustin Tabor, 502nd CES natural resources manager at JBSA-Camp Bullis, said two years in a row of wet weather during spring has increased the amount of vegetation, or fuel loads, at the installation, including grasses and small shrubs that can be easily ignited and start a wildfire.
“We’re trying to reduce fuel loads out here,” Tabor said. “Right now we just have them in excess due to the wet springs, early summers. With that much fuel on the ground, if there is a wildfire, our ability to try and contain it is greatly diminished. It’ll move too fast, eat up a lot of fuel. Our ability to actually try to suppress that fire is not very good.”
In August 2016, a wildfire burned 90 acres at JBSA-Camp Bullis. No structures were damaged in the fire.
Conducting a controlled burn also helps in protecting structures and training areas within JBSA-Camp Bullis and the adjacent residents and communities that surround the 28,000-acre installation, Tabor said.
“We are surrounded on three sides by residences, churches, businesses, schools and parks,” he said. “In a wildfire, there is definitely the potential for it to move into a community or at least outside of our fence line. If we can reduce wildfire, there’s less risk to the community, there’s less risk to Airmen and Soldiers training in the field and less risk to infrastructure there.”
Another objective of the burn was to keep ashe juniper, an evergreen shrub or small tree also known as mountain cedar that grows in the Texas Hill Country and JBSA-Camp Bullis, from encroaching into native grassland and oak savannah areas, which are used for training missions on the installation.
In addition, Tabor said there are environmentally sensitive areas located at JBSA-Camp Bullis that need to be protected, including an 8,500-acre habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered bird species, and 2,000 acres of karst preserve areas, which are cracked limestone formations that allow water to filter into the Edwards Aquifer. The preserve areas are set around caves in which two endangered species of ground beetles live in.
Tabor said there are 12,500 acres at the installation, each divided into units, or areas, that will be burned on a controlled basis. Each unit will be burned on a five- to seven-year rotation.
“It gives us some leeway,” he said. “If one part of the base gets more rain, it needs attention first. We can get to that area in five years instead of seven years to be able to cut down on wildfire incidents.”
Carl Schwope, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management officer, oversaw the prescribed burn and led the firefighting crew who worked it. He said planning for and conducting the controlled burn involved cooperation between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 502nd CES and JBSA.
Putting the controlled burn plan together was a year-long process that involved many components, including the burn objectives outlined in the JBSA natural resources plan, what areas to burn, onsite resources, the number of firefighters that were needed, the amount of time it would take to conduct the burn and smoke impact on areas surrounding JBSA-Camp Bullis, Schwope said.
Schwope said several precautions were taken to make sure a controlled burn was done properly and safely. Those precautions included taking into account weather conditions, igniting the burn in a way that fire personnel were able to control it, techniques for setting the fire that make it burn itself out, having firefighters ready to put out fires that get out of the burn area and burning away from surrounding communities based on wind direction to reduce smoke impact on nearby residents.
In addition, Schwope said firefighters need to have proper training and be physically fit to be able to work on a controlled burn, which includes a lot of walking in sometimes hot and windy conditions.
Schwope said the coordination between the three organizations involved in the controlled burn – the 502nd CES, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, JBSA Fire Emergency Services and the help of firefighters from San Antonio and Boerne fire departments – provided for a successful outcome.
“It took everybody to get that job done,” Schwope said.
Scott Ridenour, JBSA Fire Emergency Services deputy chief at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Camp Bullis Operating Location, said JBSA firefighters were there to provide support if a fire from the burn were to get out of control.
Working a controlled burn can be demanding for a firefighter, which is why they need to be properly hydrated and be in good physical condition, Ridenour said.
“It’s hot, so there is a toll on your body,” he said. “It’s just nasty, dirty, hard work. You are in it, breathing in the smoke. Personally, it’s some of the hardest firefighting that you do compared to everything else.”