MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga -- Thick clouds of reddish-brown smoke billowed up from hundreds of acres of pine trees here last week as two men went on a burning rampage. Dense blankets of the inferno's fog could be seen from miles away as thousands of small fires ripped through the forest floor. What may have struck some unaware residents as odd is the fact that base officials did nothing to put the blaze out. Why? They were too busy starting it.
Each year, for 15 days following deer season, Natural Resources officials and game wardens set precision blazes throughout much of the bases' wooded areas in an effort to maintain the ecological stability of Albany's natural wildlife.
According to one of the fire starters, Sgt. Charles Rogers, assistant chief game warden, the controlled fires are an essential tool in protecting wildlife and preventing catastrophic wildfires.
"During the spring we come out here and burn about one-third of the forest acreage," Rogers said. "Controlled burning not only clears the forest floor of dead foliage and underbrush that could accelerate a wildfire but also promotes the healthy growth of vegetation. The fire also keeps oak and other deciduous trees from overtaking the pine forest," Rogers added.
Tasked with burning over 400 acres of forest each season, game wardens and officials from the natural resources office must closely monitor weather conditions on burn days to ensure that their controlled fires clear only the pre-designated plots of forest.
"We use several factors including temperature, relative humidity, and wind direction and speed, to help us determine which days are safest for burning," said Eddie Parramore, manager, Natural Resources Office. "On good days we usually look for about 30 percent humidity and light winds."
Just as artists have their paintbrushes, so do part-time pyros. Rogers and Parramore have their drip torches. The men use these hand-held, watering can-sized containers to dispense a molten mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel over large portions of land.
"It takes us between five and six hours a day to burn a section of the forest," Rogers said. "We usually burn different areas each day and stay out and monitor the fires until they burn themselves out."
Rogers and Parramore do all the grunt work on foot to ensure a correct dispersal of flame and to prevent certain "burn free" areas of the forest from becoming unwanted paintings on their fiery canvas.
MCLB officials are careful to spare the base's half-century old pine trees from the furnace by burning only in fairly humid weather conditions and by closely monitoring the fire's intensity.
"If it's too dry, we don't burn," Rogers said. "It takes a lot of heat to ignite the larger pine trees but if they start going up, just about everything on them will burn."
Rogers and Parramore don't receive special pay for playing with fire, but from the satisfied looks on their soot-covered faces, the job is a reward in itself. These conservationists take pride in their work, proving, one charred tree-trunk at a time, even the most destructive force in nature can, in the right hands, be one of the most beneficial.