Planned burn provides education

Published 3:59 pm Friday, November 28, 2008

A late morning sun sparkled in clear skies, and a gentle breeze fluttered dry foliage Nov. 20.

Leaving Interstate 65 and driving east on Shelby County 11, I saw a massive plume of pale smoke towering thousands of feet.

A forest fire in Oak Mountain State Park, I said and worried about its 10,000 acres of natural beauty. Drought conditions and recent high winds made for a potentially deadly situation.

Further down the highway, dense smoke forced drivers to use headlights. Thoughts surfaced of recent news reports of California’s destructive wildfires; my child, grandchild –– both suffering from asthma, their home almost touching the park property.

In time, I discovered that this event was a planned, controlled burn of around 100 acres of the park, and was practice for the Park’s Wildlife Management Plan, an attempt to save a long leaf pine forest, and for education.

The burn combined cooperative efforts: the state parks division, the Alabama Forestry Commission, Shelby County EMA, the Wildland Fire Academy Class and the Pelham, North Shelby and Chelsea fire departments.

Burns such as these actually help prevent forest fires by ridding the forest of underbrush, replenishing soil nutrients and encouraging growth of certain plants.

I talked with fireman Steve Brecht of Cahaba Valley Fire and Rescue.

“Did everything go as planned, no surprises?” I asked him.

“All went smoothly; nothing was ever out of control and no residential structures were at risk,” Brecht said.

“Did you learn from this event,” I asked.

Brecht was quick to respond.

“Yes. Now I understand the lingo, special language differences between structural and forest fires,” he answered. “This was a great multi-agency effort, an exercise in cooperation which could be duplicated in the event of a widespread disaster. Everyone learned that day.”

The learning continues in the classroom of Scot Duncan’s general ecology students at Birmingham Southern. Duncan’s class of 16 will return to the site after Thanksgiving holidays and record results of the burn.

By mid-afternoon on the burn day, smoke began to diminish and its yellow stain blew south. I sighed with relief.

More neighborhoods are carving into our dry forests, so I looked on the National Forestry Service Web site and learned a few ways to prevent wildfire: drown charcoal briquettes and fireplace ashes, repair sparking lawnmowers and power equipment, dispose of cigarettes properly, create a 30 foot zone of fire-resistant space around your house.

Gladys Sherrer can be reached by e–mail at