ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Smoke and flames rise above the brush. The intermittent crackle of fire fills the air. A firefighter watches a handful of men set fire to the landscape with glorified blow torches; he explains that starting from the far end of the field will let the wind further their progress.
And just as quickly as the purposely-set fire burns through the field, it’s gone. It leaves nothing but charred foliage behind, posing no real danger to APG, its inhabitants or the local community. In fact, it actually makes the proving ground safer in the long-run.
For the past century, the Army has used test ranges at APG to proof countless munitions, vehicles, and a myriad of other Army equipment. Over time, those ranges must be maintained— eliminating overgrown brush from interfering with test results— and upgraded to keep pace with new technologies.
According to Ben Gallardy, who works for Aberdeen Test Center’s Range Control Division, there’s an obvious solution to overgrown brush; cut the grass. The obvious solution, however isn’t the simple solution.
The unexploded ordnance that results from a century of testing makes mowing plant matter on test ranges a dangerous task. Clearing acreage for UXO is time consuming, and expensive. Later mowing that cleared acreage adds time and cost.
Believe it or not, Gallardy said, that leaves fire as the next best option.
“Controlled burns are much safer and more efficient than using mechanical means such as mowing or dozing,” he said. “On a good day, we can safely burn 100 acres per hour. It would take an entire day to mow 100 acres, not to mention the cost difference.”
Attention to detail
Fire is an attractive option for range maintenance because it is effective and unexpectedly manageable for those properly trained to oversee the process.
Taking the same meticulous attention to detail used for testing Army materiel, ATC and the APG Garrison Directorate of Emergency Services Fire Department thoroughly prepare for controlled burns on test ranges.
Every detail is planned out, Gallardy said, often starting six months or more in advance. ATC identifies areas that are to be burned and develops range-specific burn plans. Then, the APG Garrison analyzes the plans for environmental considerations, safety, mission requirements and community impact on and off-post.
Part of each plan includes analyzing the fuel load (vegetation) on the range and current weather patterns. This allows ATC to predict the safest and most effective days to execute a controlled burn.
“Once planning is complete, ATC Range Operations and the APG Fire Department monitor weather conditions for windows of opportunity between range conflicts and testing schedules,” Gallardy said. “When all the pieces of the pie finally line up, we execute.”
The individuals managing the burn are trained under protocol set out by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
“Specific training for a successful controlled burn program includes how to monitor wind conditions, humidity, temperature, and fuel moisture, as well as incident command, personal protective equipment, fire crew management, first aid, and other components,” he said.
Firebreaks & bambi buckets
Most controlled burns start on a road bordering a test range, which acts as a “firebreak” meaning there is no fuel for the fire. Wind spreads the fire across the range until it reaches another firebreak, and the fire extinguishes itself due to lack of fuel.
“Predictability, planning and experience are the keys to safely executing a controlled burn in a range area,” Gallardy said. “A properly planned fire will burn from one firebreak to another and extinguish itself. By burning on days we know the directions and speed of the wind, we can control its intensity and direction of smoke.”
The goal, Gallardy said, is to have smoke from a controlled burn blow away from populated areas and dissipate high in the atmosphere.
If firebreaks cannot be established on certain ranges, a helicopter is used to extinguish fires. The chopper hoists a bambi bucket – a lightweight tarp bucket – over the bay, dunks it into the water – and then releases that water over the flames of a fire.
Setting fires for safety
Though fire allows for the quick-clearing of vegetation for range upgrades, Gallardy said prescribed burns have other safety benefits.
UXO aside, tall grass or brush on test ranges where ammunition is fired poses another issue; it’s a fire hazard in itself. Plant matter that has weathered several seasons at APG becomes overgrown and a little dry. Throw in a nice breeze, the spark of a mission-required test firing, or the explosion of a round hitting its target and the conditions are perfect for a brushfire or wildfire.
“Removing excess fuel from the range areas makes it highly unlikely we will generate a range fire due to testing activities in the near future,” Gallardy explained.
“This protects valuable range infrastructure during testing and reduces testing downtime due to fire suppression activities.”
Smoke drifting into populated areas on or off APG is likely the unfortunate result of too much vegetation on a test range routinely used for mission-based activities on the installation.
“By reducing fuel loads via fire on a yearly basis, we expect range fires to be much less intense and extinguish quickly,” Gallardy explained. “We are mitigating the risk of starting a fire due to testing and mission requirements on less-than-ideal range conditions or burn days.”
Future burns and long-term safety
With only a quarter of the planned burns for 2017 complete, countless acres on APG North and APG South wait to be intentionally set ablaze.
Beyond 2017, plans are set for annual prescribed burning on the installation. As the controlled burns progress each year, the amount of fuel for a fire on a test range decreases naturally, until only the previous year’s organic growth remains.
“That decrease in available fuel increases range safety by reducing ideal conditions for unexpected brushfires,” Gallardy said.
As the controlled burn program progresses, he said, ATC hopes to provide a safe solution for maintaining range areas and eliminate nuisance smoke off the ranges areas. Prior to each controlled burn, the APG Garrison Public Affairs Office alerts Team APG personnel, as well as the local community off-post – though little impact off the test range is anticipated.
“The first sign of a successful controlled burn, even though the APG Public Affairs Office notifies the local community – is that no one notices it happened,” Gallardy said.