HOFFMAN — A few patches of flames in the trees along McDonald Church Road near the McKinney Lake State Fish Hatchery caused concern in at least one resident who called 911 Friday evening — but it was just one of the many controlled burns done this time of year in order to remove material that could trigger a real forest fire.
Controlled, or prescribed, burns are done to reduce the pine needles, hardwood leaves and other debris that build up on the floor of the forest. When dry, this material provides fuel for forest fires and makes them all the more dangerous, according to Richmond County Ranger Matt Gordon with the N.C. Forest Service.
“If 911 is called about a wildfire, they have to page it out,” Gordon said in an email. “It’s more of a safety issue because, yes, there actually could be a wildfire right near the controlled burn. That has happened before. It’s a ‘better safe than sorry’ kind of deal.”
The forest floor was blackened deep into the woods Saturday morning, with a few lingering flames antagonizing fallen logs and dead trees engulfed in embers.
Tim McFayden, wildlife forest manager with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said the way to tell a difference between a real forest fire and a controlled burn is that the latter will likely have someone attending it and will always have a “fire break,” a stretch of ground cleared of flammable forest debris, somewhere around it keeping it from spreading.
The burns, which are done by state agencies or private contractors at the request of landowners, are planned two to three days ahead and are heavily dependent on weather conditions, McFayden said. Once they nail down a time, the agency notifies the Forest Service and the 911 center of the fire so that no emergency resources are wasted responding to a controlled burn. The 111 acres of land around the hatchery, which is state game land, is on a three-year burn rotation, according to McFayden.
He added that NCWRC chose Friday for the McKinney Hatchery burn because of the recent rain and the moisture that was expected over the remainder of the weekend.
Controlled burns are typically done in winter when there is more consistent moisture in the ground, lower humidity and there are colder temperatures and thus less risk of the fire spreading, according Gordon.
But there are also benefits to burning in the spring.
“The purpose for (a spring) burn is to kill back sprouts of woody vegetation competing with over-story crop trees,” he said. “You have to be extremely careful burning in the springtime because fire conditions can be quite explosive and get out of hand quick.”
Gordon said before a burn is ever started, a burn plan and map are made and fire breaks are installed around the area to be burned. They also have to make sure that the fire is at least half a mile from any homes, or other fire-sensitive areas, down wind.
“Once all these things take place, we would start the burn and monitor throughout making sure that the fire does not get out of hand,” Gordon said.
He added that fire season is not over, and that residents need to be sure to use proper precautions when burning trash or starting other kinds of fires. In February, a Hamlet man put his trash in a fire pit under a metal screen cap to burn. After lighting it, he took a nap. The man awoke to find his goat pasture and storage shed, containing four lawn mowers, fully engulfed.
“The public needs to be very careful anytime doing outdoor burning, and should have all the proper tools and water available to prevent the fire from escaping,” Gordon said. “Once everything has finally greened up, in the yards and trees full of leaves, fire season will calm down some. Until then, always maintain control of your fire, stay with it, and do not leave it until it is completely out. In the springtime, it’s best to burn in the late afternoon once the winds have calmed down and the temperatures have dropped.”
Burning permits are provided free by the Forest Service online at ncforestservice.gov or at any Forest Service office.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]