Where there’s smoke, there’s Wildland Fire Fighters

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zachary Nordheim
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

EGLIN AIR FORCE  BASE, Fla - Every year Florida experiences an average of 2,000 wildfires that burn 88,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. To mitigate the hazardous effects wildfires can have on the local environment and military installations, the Air Force created the Wildland Fire Branch, a part of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Environmental Directorate.

Through the use of prescribed burns, also known as controlled burns, the Wildland Fire Branch can provide strategic, logistical and “boots on the ground” support to ensure military preparedness.

“Wildfires are a natural occurrence here, so we’re constantly trying to mitigate those negative impacts that they might have,” said Anthony Dimaggio, Eglin Air Force Base Wildland Support Module assistant module leader. “Not only do we do prescribed fires for wildfire hazard reduction, but we also do it for environmental benefits such as natural resources and endangered species.”

Last year a 30,000 acre wildfire threatened Bay County residences and destroyed several homes. The area that burned had not been burned in many years which made the ability to contain it nearly impossible. Because of the devastating effects of Hurricane Michael, a large amount of dead and down timber was left dangerously close to base housing and other important infrastructure at Tyndall. However, with a proactive approach to prescribed burning, the Tyndall wildland firefighters and other entities have been able to minimize the threats to Air Force personnel and property.

In the state of Florida numerous plants and animals live in habitats that are adapted to fire. With an absence of wildfires due to active wildland fire suppression, prescribed burns benefit and mimic the natural process for local wildlife habitats.

“Prescribed fire is essential for meeting ecosystem management goals, maintenance and restoration of natural communities,” said Jose Cintron, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron environmental engineer. “[This includes] enhancement of threatened and endangered species habitats, and control of non-native invasive plant species at Tyndall.”

Across the United States there are fourteen wildland support modules comprised of teams of qualified and equipped personnel who conduct prescribed fire, mechanical fuel reduction and wildfire suppression response at installations within their area of responsibility. Additionally, these teams will temporarily deploy to other regions to assist when more personnel are needed for various scenarios.

“Our organization is broken down into different regions. We have the east, midwest and west that vary in module numbers and size,” Dimaggio added. “Each module has an area of responsibility that can vary from one or two installations or up to eight to 10 depending on the complexity. The module I am assigned to oversees four different bases. Whether it be prescribed fire, or wildfire, we manage Eglin, Tyndall, Hurlburt and Moody AFB.”

According to Cintron, no matter the installation, planning and coordination for prescribed fires start months before they are implemented during specific seasons to meet burn guidelines. Importance is put on selecting appropriate weather conditions, coordinating with numerous programs, as well as addressing reforestation, hunting and cultural considerations.

“There is a high level of education, planning and professionalism that goes into each burn,” Dimaggio concluded. “We try to minimize any kind of negative impact on anyone and everyone. Handling big fires is a difficult task, and it will happen regardless, whether we do it or we let nature do it.”