Controlled fires enable Avon Park Air Force Range mission

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --

The Avon Park Wildland Support Module's wildland management techniques are keeping a critical Air Force range mission going in Florida.

"Without the efforts of the WSM, we would have to shut down two to three months out of the year," said Lt. Col. Daniel Edgar, 598th Range Squadron commander.

The 598th RS manages all activity at the Avon Park Air Force Range, a 106,000-acre military training facility located in South-Central Florida. Florida is struggling with severe and extreme drought conditions; nearly 2,400 wildfires have burned more than 230,000 acres across the state so far this year including four currently burning on Avon Park AFR.

With the Avon Park WSM in command, an Air Force Wildland Fire Center team is using internal assets and interagency partnerships to contain those fires. The Echo Springs wildfire, an 8,800-acre wildfire now 100-percent contained, started May 17 from range activity. Three smaller fires, totaling nearly 3,191 acres, resulted from lightning strikes May 30.

Avon Park WSM’s prescribed fire activities at strategic locations have significantly influenced the outcome of the wildfires by mitigating wildfire damage, according to Tracy Meeks, Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s AFWFC branch chief.

“The impact of the fires could have been much, much worse. But thanks to a proactive, aggressive approach to managing wildlands, the WSM’s firefighters successfully safeguarded the range’s boundaries, protected threatened and endangered species - including three endangered Florida Scrub Jay fledgling nests in the main wildfire impact area - and reduced the health and safety impacts of the fires,” Meeks said.

To mitigate the risk of an uncontrolled wildfire during times of drought, the WSM works year round employing prescribed burns and other wildland management tools. When wildfires do start, from range activity or natural phenomenon, those efforts ensure the burns are managed safely with minimal threat to the natural environment and the surrounding community.

Since November 2016, the Avon Park WSM executed 41 prescribed burns totaling 10,330 acres, including 34,916 feet along the range’s perimeter. The WSM burns about 1/3 of the range every year, according to Edgar.

“A landscape that has been well maintained with prescribed fire is much less likely to have negative effects to the environment, wildlife and the surrounding communities from a wildfire because they are less intense and easier to control. In addition, smoke production is reduced, the duration is often shorter, they are smaller and they are cheaper and safer for firefighters to manage or suppress,” said Neil Clineman, regional assistant fire management officer for the AFWFC’s East Region.

The prescribed burns reduced fuel loads in the Avon Park AFR impact area and surrounding safety buffer. Because of low fuel loads, areas didn’t reignite. If this land hadn’t been previously treated by prescribed burns, it’s estimated that the wildfire could have exceeded 16,000 acres, or doubled its size and possibly spread outside the range, said Charles MacLaughlin, 598th RANS range operations officer.

Managed by the 598th RANS, Avon Park AFR serves as an air and ground training complex for the military. The range is an important operational training ground for all services, providing realistic and relevant training for joint, interagency, and multinational partners and excelling in air-ground integration, Edgar explained

“We pair the military's combat aircraft with ground personnel and let them train and fight together on our tactical ranges before they deploy to a combat zone. Due to the remoteness of the range, (they) have the ability to train and fight like they would in a combat zone, with few restrictions that take away from the realism,” he added.

And while wildfires impact activities across Florida, the military mission continues at Avon Park.

“We are only able to execute our mission here at the range because of the Wildland Support Module. The WSM takes incredibly good care of (the range). This enables us to keep the range open for business despite severe droughts and lightning-induced wildfires,” Edgar said.

The AFWFC is part of AFCEC’s Environmental Management Directorate at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The center was established through interagency collaboration to manage increasing wildland fire threats to Air Force missions.

“The Wildland Support Module is part of our team; they are truly a part of the squadron. It isn't us and them -- we are one (team) working to support the warfighters training on our range,” Edgar added.