Prescribed fire burns Huffman Prairie to ensure its health

Nick Steel, Air Force Wildland Fire Branch Wildland Support Module, and District Chief Matt Dickey, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Fire Department, part of the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron, walk with drip torches Feb. 21, helping to spread a prescribed burn on Huffman Prairie. (U.S. Air Force photo/R.J. Oriez)

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Nick Steel, Air Force Wildland Fire Branch Wildland Support Module, and District Chief Matt Dickey, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Fire Department, part of the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron, walk with drip torches Feb. 21, helping to spread a prescribed burn on Huffman Prairie. (U.S. Air Force photo/R.J. Oriez)

Flames rose 10 to 12 feet from the tinder-dried prairie grasses growing on Huffman Prairie across the fence from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Feb. 21. It was just a matter of yards from the wooden replica of the hangar the Wright brothers built to protect some of the first airplanes ever built.

Despite the cold wind and the local temperature in the low 20s, the heat caused some of the Air Force base’s firefighters to take a step or two back. They were not concerned though. They were not there to put out the fire. In fact, they helped light it.

Darryn Warner, 88th Civil Engineering Group Natural Resources Program manager, organized the event for the good of the prairie.

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“Huffman Prairie is a fire-dependent ecosystem,” Warner told a local television station. “Most of the plants out there require regular exposure to fire to grow their best, so we try to do prescribed fires on an annual basis.”

Warner sees the patch of Huffman Prairie as an important remnant of what used to be.

“The whole Mad River Valley area, from up in Bellefontaine all the way down through here, used to be ecosystems like this,” Warner said. “Back during the times the Wright brothers flew and before the dams were constructed, this whole valley used to be areas just like this.”

The prescribed burn on Huffman Prairie, and one earlier in the day on some Air Force property along Haddix Road North of Wright-Patterson AFB, is not unique for the Air Force. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center Environmental Directorate Air Force Wildland Fire Branch was set up to, among other things, reduce wildfire threats to the Air Force mission, assets and personnel.

The wildland support module out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, has Wright-Patt in its area of responsibility. Mike Gawronski is the assistant module lead for the group that travels around the eastern United States starting fires on, or near, Air Force bases. However, they are not part of the Air Force.

“We are all U.S. Fish and Wildlife, under the Department of Interior,” Gawronski said, “and they are partnered with the U.S. Air Force. Even though we are DoI employees, our main goal is to help with the management of Air Force land.”

Gawronski estimates his module conducts 20 burns a year.

“We burn anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 acres a year,” he said.

But the Huffman Prairie burn was different.

“We do a lot of hazard fuel reduction burns – this isn’t for that,” Gawronski said. “What we are burning for here is to promote the good grass, the native grass here, to keep the prairie in its original state.”

He added that without the burns the area would be overtaken by woody vegetation and the grass that makes the prairie a prairie would be pushed out.

“The birds use this,” Gawronski said. “It’s a pollinator area. So it’s important!”

The wildland support module crew was augmented by members of the Wright-Patt Fire Department with an eye toward making the 88th CEG’s Natural Resources Program more self-reliant.

“We’ve got them trained and qualified, so now they’re out here helping, getting experience, with the premise that, in the future, we will possibly be able to do this on our own, without relying on outside support.” Warner said.

The conditions need to be just right for a burn. Naturally, the grass cannot be too wet. It helps to have some wind, but not too much.

Also, the wind has to be blowing in the right direction. Throughout the planning, and the day of the burn, Warner kept a wary eye on the winds. If it looked like the winds were going to carry smoke from the fire toward the base’s medical clinic, and the patients inside, the burn would have to be postponed and it might have been a wasted trip for those coming here from New Jersey.

The time frame when the conditions are good for a burn is referred to as the “burn window.”

“Our burn windows are very short,” Warner said. “Sometimes we only have a day’s notice that we could burn, but we don’t have the resources here to be able to burn.”

Warner’s management plan has Huffman Prairie divided into quadrant with the goal of burning at least one quadrant each year.

“With the burn window being so short, when we get the window we go ahead and burn half of it at a time. That way we are maintaining that every quadrant gets burnt at least every four years,” Warner said.

With all the pieces coming together, the 50 acres of chest-high grass quickly burned flat. Looking out across the charred landscape, Gawronski was happy with what he saw.

“It was a great day. It [the fire] consumed it very well. So this is probably one of the better burns on this prairie yet,” he said.

He also made a prediction.

“Give it a couple of weeks, some warm weather, get a little bit of rain, you’ll be able to come out and it will all be green again.”

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