U.S. Forest Service fire personnel have begun controlled burns in the national forests and will continue the burns during the next few months.
"Folks may see a helicopter overhead, smoke columns rising, additional traffic along Forest Service roads, and smoke settling in low lying areas at night," according to interim Fire Management Officer Bobi Stiles.
Residents may notice more smoke than usual because when Hurricane Ike blew through Texas last September, the strong winds ripped needles off pine trees, tore branches from trees and blew trees completely over. This debris from the hurricane is being consumed by the controlled burning, reducing the fuel loading but increasing smoke. If left alone, the accumulation of pine litter, branches and downed logs could lead to catastrophic wildfires.
"We want communities to know what we're doing when we conduct prescribed burns on the national forests. Our prescribed burns are controlled fires conducted by experienced, qualified personnel who work as a team to ignite, monitor and ensure that the fire stays within the control lines," she said.
The Forest Service conducts prescribed burning only when weather conditions are most favorable and are based on daily forecasts from the National Weather Service. Forest Service fire personnel take into account weather conditions and fire behavior before conducting a burn. They work as team to monitor the burns and make sure the fire does not cross the lines.
"Anytime there is a fire, there is going to be smoke associated with it," Stiles said. "When there are low-lying concentrations of drift smoke, visibility may be reduced. Also, for those who have respiratory problems, we recommend they close windows and ventilate their homes by using the air conditioning or heating system. Some may want to leave the area until the smoke clears."
If drivers encounter smoke on the road, they should reduce their speed and use their low beam lights to become more visible to other traffic. In some areas, Forest Service fire personnel visit property owners living closest to the burn areas to explain safety procedures and the benefits of prescribed fire.
Controlled fires not only reduce fuel accumulations that might contribute to a catastrophic wildfire, they reduce the height of shrubs and bring new plant growth back down within the reach of foraging deer.
"The bottom line is that smoke is a short term inconvenience that results in a long term gain - keeping East Texas the way we like it - and that's reason we live here," she said.
For questions about the controlled fire program, contact interim fire Management Officer Bobi Stiles in Lufkin at 936-639-8501.