Fort Hood’s primary mission is to properly train Soldiers. Training exercises incorporate various munitions with tracers and pyrotechnics in live fire and occasionally ignite undesirable range spot-fires, i.e. those fires that are in initial stages, small and easily extinguished. These spot-fires can slow training progress and if not checked, can grow into difficult-to-manage range fires or wildfires.
Recently, wildland firefighters from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the Fort Hood Fire Department and Directorate of Public Works Natural and Cultural Resources Management Branch, conducted spot-fire suppression training for the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. The exercises were held inside Live Fire 80 at Dalton Mountain multi-use range near North Fort Hood.
Training focused on how to properly and effectively suppress small spot-fires with hand tools and water, before they grow too large to be effectively suppressed with the same tools.
“Fires on the range jeopardize target lifters and movers that are expensive and time consuming to repair,” Sgt. 1st Class Cedric Gustave, Jr., 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., said. “As a result, fires must be extinguished in a timely manner. In doing so, we are obligated to shut down not only our range, but any adjacent range that has surface danger zones that cross into the area we send our firefighting details.”
Wildfires are a natural part of the Fort Hood landscape and can be beneficial to plants and animals by maintaining vegetation in various successional growth stages. In addition to training delays, there can be another downside to wildfires. That is, potential loss of habitat of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, a small songbird that thrives here due to Army land ownership and management. This bird habitat does not need fire at all because it takes several decades, if not longer, to grow and mature into the dense woodlands the birds need to survive.
“The Soldier spot-fire training is one tool to help us prevent future catastrophic fires, especially when conditions are particularly dry, which we call Range Condition Red,” NCRMB supervisory wildlife biologist Virginia Sanders, who manages both endangered species and the wildland prescribed fire operations conducted on Fort Hood, said. “Our intent is to improve the quality of training the Soldiers receive so they can become more effective in suppressing those fires.”
This past July, Soldier firefighting details successfully managed 185 fires started during live fire exercises, six of which became intense enough to require assistance from the FHFD.
“We strike a balance of enhancing wildlife habitat with fire and ensuring it happens in a way to support our Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan,” Sanders added.
The INRMP ultimately benefits Army training because Fort Hood’s ecosystem function and training areas are enhanced by a natural habitat that sustain a landscape required for long-term military training. Natural habitat is created and cycled with the help of periodic fire, because central Texas has many plants that require fire to germinate seeds to continue their life cycles.
“Thus, periodic fire is good in many places, but often times we don’t have the frequency we need, and catastrophic fires can happen when too much vegetation fuel builds up,” Sanders explained.
Fort Hood has a long history of prescribed fire and wildfire suppression. Indeed, NCRMB has been conducting prescribed burns since the 1990s. Today, NCRMB works with the USFWS from Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge through a Cooperative Agreement and additional fire support from FHFD.
“Suppressing unwanted fires and igniting beneficial prescribed fires begins with the Army. Having well-trained Soldiers efficient in firefighting is key to suppressing unwanted fires before the fires can get large and potentially destructive,” Carl Schwope, a USFWS fire management officer, said. “This allows for prescribed fires used for beneficial purposes such as resource protection and natural resource management to be ignited. Being part of this collaboration and working with the Army has been exciting and rewarding.”
Wildland fires are different than structure fires. Federal professional wildland firefighter training is sanctioned and administered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. NWCG sets fitness and fire line qualification standards for wildland fire operations. This allows interoperability for wildland fire operations among federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners.