Beale Air Force Base, Calif. --
The dry fields across Beale Air Force Base can see months without a drop of rain during fire season. A single spark, one mistake, capable of setting huge swaths of land ablaze. Fires of such magnitude can reach buildings and residences, disrupting our mission and potentially leaving many without homes.
Wildland firefighters purposely set off fires across Beale’s large open spaces in an effort to prevent such a catastrophe from happening. The Air Force Civil Engineering Center’s (AFCEC) Wildland Fire Prevention Module operates across the Armed Forces fighting fires with fires.
“We’re designed for natural environment management and wildland fire management,” said Chief Tony Velazquez, AFCEC Wild Lands Fire Support Module Lead. “Here at Beale it’s very unique because we have such a high probability and risk of wildland fire. We help out with outside resources, we’ll get calls about wildfires off base and we’ll help out.”
The Wildland Fire Prevention Module has completely integrated with Beale’s Fire Emergency Services, the only base to have done so. Travis Air Force Base also falls within the area of responsibility for Beale’s Wildland firefighters.
It’s no secret California has had its issues with fires over the years. Another problem encountered, however, includes challenges with the natural environment. Invasive plant species and overgrown vegetation create a unique challenge in both fire prevention and maintaining the natural resources of our base. A unique difficulty that also creates a unique opportunity for Wildland Fire Prevention to recreate the natural landscape that can be seen at Beale.
“Our responsibilities cover anywhere from helping Beale to be a safer place to work at, helping environmental groups get rid of invasive plant species and encourage our natural vegetation to grow, and provide wildland fire safety training for people both on and off base,” Velazquez said.
Fire season in California traditionally lasts from May to October, however some experts suggest we must remain vigilant no matter the time of year. Across the United States, fire season can be at different times of the year, and Wildland Firefighters can be sent where they are needed throughout the year to offer their skills and expertise.
“I work for Colorado State University and I contract for the Air Force,” said Wilson Yates, an AFCEC Wildlands Fire Support crewmember stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. “In two weeks, I’ll go home, and in a month, I’ll be going to Florida for a few weeks.”
Organizing these controlled burns takes a lot of preparation, which goes into a burn plan. This includes determining manpower and required resources, both in terms of gear and outside help, and a perimeter must be created. The plan answers questions such as, exactly what do we want to burn. Where do we create our perimeter? What outside agencies are we working with? Do we use drip torches or a helicopter with a heli torch? Which techniques must be used for a successful burn? What hazards exist that must be adjusted for?
These burns create training opportunities, including collaborating with outside resources and agencies to improve efficiency and techniques. Every firefighter also carries a handbook detailing procedures, safety, and tactics. Most importantly, situational awareness is the key to safety and a successful burn, such as paying attention to wind direction, the size and spread of the fire, and adapting to any situation.
“No matter how complex the situation, rely on your crew, don’t overthink, and remember your training,” Yates said.
Fire prevention and ecology are mutually beneficial goals despite the main reason for a prescribed fire occurring. Whether it’s burning a dry field or a buildup of dead foliage, removing invasive species, or even preparing an area of land for construction, each prescribed fire helps to prevent an uncontrolled fire and continue our mission.