How does the US Forest Service set prescribed fires in Kisatchie Forest? Drones and 'Dragon Eggs'
For centuries, fire has been used as a tool to keep forests under control by reducing undergrowth, eliminating pests and disease, controlling invasive species and contributing to the overall health of the forest. Today, the US Forest Service uses fire for the same reasons but with help of modern technology, Unarmed Aerial Systems (UAS), commonly known as drones to help them conduct prescribed fires. It does what three people in a helicopter can do but it transfers the risk of using people to "just a small piece of plastic and electronics" that can fit inside of a large suitcase, said Doug Currie, US Forest Service assistant fire management officer. The drone has a machine attached to the bottom filled with plastic spheres about the size of ping pong balls which are sometimes called ‘Dragon Eggs’. It can carry about 450 balls per mission, said Steven Staples, US Forest Service zone fire management officer for Kisatchie National Forest.
Each of the balls contain a dry chemical, potassium permanganate, inside that is injected with glycol, which is basically antifreeze. When the two combine, it causes a delayed, internal combustion, so that after the sphere falls and hits the ground, it will start a fire. Using a remote, UAS pilots can tell the drone when to start dropping the spheres and when to stop.
Like the UAS, helicopters are also fitted with machines that dispense these spheres in the same manner.
Using a UAS, they can burn about 1 500 acres a day. On this particular day, they are looking to burn about 556 acres near Cotile Lake.
Maps of areas to be burned can be found on the Kisatchie National Forest website and information about when and where a burn is set to take place will be announced on their US Forest Service - Kisatchie National Forest Facebook page.
New technology for the US Forest Service
"Drone technology is fairly new to the Forest Service," said Staples. "We are doing a lot more of it. We have been doing it for the past three years."
Just like airplane pilots, Staples said UAS pilots have to file a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration. They have to give details such as where they will be operating and how high the UAS will be flying. Coordinations also have to be made with the military since Kisatchie National Forest encompasses the Claiborne Bombing Range and the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) and Fort Polk.
Using a UAS for prescribed fires is new to Kisatchie National Forest but Staples said they plan to continue using them since they are sensible.
Every year, Staples said the Forest Service looks to burn about one-sixth of Kisatchie Forest's 604,000 acres every year. The forest is divided into compartments which are put on a rotation schedule for prescribed burns.
But storm damage that the area suffered the last couple of years from Hurricane Laura and two tornadoes has delayed prescribed fires, said Currie. Now the Forest Service is trying to get through a backlog of prescribed fires so there has been an increase in prescribed fires. On the low end, Currie expects they'll burn at least 150 000 acres and on the high end 180 000 acres.
"If we hit 150 000 we're going to be pretty happy," he said. So far they have burned over 96 000 acres.
Forests need prescribed fires
"Fire is a natural occurrence. It has been used here forever," said Currie. Longleaf pines that are native to Louisiana need it. "Absolutely have to have it. You can burn these things to the top of the tree. It may look ruined but it's not. It'll be back happier than ever. And there are some locations in the South where it is almost instantaneous. You run fire through a unit and in a matter days, it is just brand new glorious growth. Everybody's happy," said Currie.
Fires result in creating good habitat and forage for wildlife. The longleaf pines are prime habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker which likes wide-open spaces so it can see and fly so it needs open stands, explained Currie. Wild turkey populations also do better after burns as well.
But the ecosystem as a whole needs to be managed and not just for one species. So they do like to "keep a little bit of the stuff on the ground because it provides cover for the little critters so you just can't manage for one species," he said.
Prescribed fires also eliminate the increased fuel loads on the ground in case a wildfire, which Currie describes as a "bad fire," happens to start.
"A lot of this is for wildlife and for forest health but the number one reason for prescribed fire is to protect our local communities," said Currie. "It's 'good' fire."
More prescribed burns mean decreasing the probability of a large catastrophic fire that will affect local communities.
"The big one for us is protecting the public and our communities as a whole, especially here in Louisiana where these small communities are interspersed within our forested lands," said Currie. "So it's really important for us to help keep those folks safe."
Staples and Currie are the ones who write plans for prescribed burns. They are specialists who do analyses of each district.
"We look at it from the 5 000-foot level because everything here is very homogenous. It's very similar. Tree species, aspect, slope, composition, everything is pretty similar so it allows us to make a generalized assumption of the conditions overall," explained Currie.
They then take the generalised assumption and using high-speed software, get algorithms that help predict fire behaviour based on conditions input into the program. That gives them a fairly representative idea of what to expect if they put fire on the landscape.
"We look at that and we then talk to our wildlife biologists, our timber programme, silviculturists, our cultural heritage people, our archaeologists, to make sure that there are no cultural items that could be affected by our activities," he said.
Phil Roth (left) and Brian Okarski, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pilots with the US Forestry Service, watch a monitor that shows an area of Kisatchie National Forest over which a UAS is flying. The UAS, commonly known as a drone, was used to start prescribed fires near Cotile Lake.
They go through a 22-step process of elements that need to be addressed and validated. It then goes to the district ranger for review and signature.
"We have a complexity analysis that goes with every one of these," said Currie. "We look at all of the factors. The 'what-ifs.' What are the values at risk to the public, to the land itself, to our personnel."
Months of preparation go into getting ready for the day a prescribed burn takes place.
"And you can see how many people are here to help ensure that we're going to be successful," he said. "We put a lot of effort into ensuring that the science meets reality. That's part of the deal."
Once fire is put on the landscape, it can't be taken back, said Currie. "So we have to make sure that we've done our due diligence as land managers, as scientists," said Currie. "That we're going to achieve the desired results."
Land management in the South to Currie means being true stewards of the land by taking care of it and maintaining and improving on what previous generations have done and passing it on to the next generation. "All the young folks behind us that are learning from a bunch of experts to continue the tradition of Southern forest management," said Currie.
Source: Alexandria Town Talk