QUANTICO, Va. --
Leaves and dust scatter as multiple emergency vehicles rumble towards a clearing located deep in the woods on the west side of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, on March 10, 2023.
The vehicles carry a combination of professional MCBQ Forestry personnel, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, and a group of Fire and Emergency Services firefighters carrying all their equipment. Arriving at the designated location, they check the temperature, winds, and environment to verify conditions are consistent with prior planning. They are control burning twenty acres of land called a burn block, or block for short.
Controlled burns, also known as prescribed burning, involves setting well planned fires to maintain the health of a forest and burn away dead grass, fallen tree branches, dead trees and thick undergrowth. They also reduce insect populations and destroy invasive plants. Controlled burns are also used to clear land in the initial phases when building new structures and live fire ranges used for training on Quantico.
“I love that there is so much activity on Quantico. The people, the training and especially working with the public, to us that’s just as important as working with the wildlife, it’s really great!” Anna Dustin, a wildlife biologist from Virginia Tech
“Safety and control are our highest priorities,” said Christopher Crawford, MCBQ Silviculture Forester. “The environment is constantly changing, which means we are always adapting with it, communication and coordination is the key to a successful burn.”
Crawford is a third generation burn boss with over 20 years’ experience. He explained that prior to any burn, his crew plans for weather conditions, how the fire will be set, what it will burn, how to inform the public, and what emergency measures to take if the fire needs to be extinguished.
“To start, we blade off the roads or trails around the block of land with heavy equipment a couple days prior to burning. This creates a natural fire break so the fire can be contained. Additionally, we clear any light debris, like leaves and twigs that may have fallen with powerful leaf blowers the day of the burn by walking around the entire block. Light debris between the blocks can cause the fire to jump from one block to another. “Initial clearing is a very important step in the process, we take it very seriously,” said Crawford.
To begin the burn, Crawford does a test fire on a small section of the block with a drip torch, which contains a sixty percent diesel and a forty percent gas mixture.
“I use the test fire to gage the wind direction, speed of the flames and if the block will burn. If I like what I see, I let my crew know it’s a go,” said Crawford.
The crew spreads out around the entire block to their assigned areas to monitor and begin burning along the edges with drip torches when given the go ahead from Crawford. Communications and commands are done via walkie talkie, between the fire crew, fire engine and a patrolling All-Terrain Vehicle with water spraying capabilities called a pumper.
“Once the entire block is lit, I look for thermal lifting and gaps in the block that can allow winds to hit over the tops of the trees and then undercut, blowing the fire into the block. The fire from one side of the block will reach out and pull the other side burning into the middle of the block,” said Crawford.
Fillin It Up
Photo by Cpl. Mitchell Johnson
Mark Blake, Quantico Fire & Emergency Services, conducts controlled burns at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, March 9, 2023. According to the NREA, the purpose of the burns is to reduce fuel litter, minimize the potential of wildfires, and promote wildlife habitat. Fuel litter is dead and trodden woody debris that could be used as fuel for wildfires or other potential hazards.
In addition, excess foliage can disrupt the natural flow of nutrients throughout the soil and ecosystem as a whole. The burns are carried out multiple times throughout the year to achieve maximum results. Other benefits of conducting the controlled burns include the mitigation of pests and diseases, native plant reduction, and control of invasive species.
Crawford, a Fayetteville, North Carolina, native, also said alternative methods, which include farm animals or livestock, can be used to help with fire prevention, but aren’t feasible in this area.
“Although goats are used in certain situations to control vegetation, such as under power lines or areas that are highly sensitive to smoke, they can be destructive to desirable vegetation that are vital to the overall health and diversity of the landscape,” said Crawford.
As the fire dies out on the block, Crawford and his crew once again walk the entire perimeter looking for anything smoking to douse with water. Once the block is cleared, the crew starts to pack up.
One of the crew members packing up is Anna Dustin, a wildlife biologist from Virginia Tech and a recent addition to the Quantico Fish and Wildlife team.
“I love that there is so much activity on Quantico,” said Dustin. “The people, the training and especially working with the public, to us that’s just as important as working with the wildlife, it’s really great!”
Heading to a second burn location for the day, Crawford and his crew load up and rumble out.
“We’re going to help my other crew that’s burning a two hundred acre block, ultimately you can’t control any burn without safety and teamwork, and that’s what we are all about,” said Crawford.