If you see smoke coming from the area of Hitchcock Woods this month, there is no need to worry.
As part of a long-term plan to restore the ideal conditions of the ecosystem within the woods, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation will begin controlled burns that could begin as early as this week.
Bennett Tucker, Hitchcock Woods superintendent, said prescribed burns reduce fuel loads in the woods, making them safer for the community and more productive ecologically. “We conduct burns in the woods for several different reasons, not only for hazard reduction but also to benefit the flora and fauna of a longleaf pine ecosystem,” Tucker said.
Policy enhancements in recent years have reduced smoke in the community, but area residents could notice some smoke or just the smell of smoke, coming from the woods from the burns, according to Tucker.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the days the burns will occur, according to Tucker, because very precise parameters must be followed to execute them.
“We don’t necessarily have a planned day we will execute the burns,” Tucker said. “We rely on the weather forecast, and, oftentimes, we won’t know until that morning” if conditions are right to burn.
A carefully developed prescribed-burn regimen has been planned for the winter and the early months of spring for the woods, and if precipitation and other weather conditions permit, burns will be conducted in various sections with cleared trails serving as firebreaks.
Nearly 900 acres have been identified for burning, but the actual acreage burned will depend on weather conditions. The variety of targeted locales will give staff some options based on weather patterns.
The Hitchcock Woods Foundation staff works with a licensed contractor to conduct the burns. Tucker has been a volunteer firefighter for nine years and has about eight years of experience with Aiken Department of Public Safety. As certified Prescribed Fire Managers, Bennett Tucker and Woods Technician Deon Mealing have firefighting expertise and skills in the prescribed burn process.
“As fire managers, we abide by smoke management guidelines established by the EPA, the South Carolina Forestry Commission and DHEC to ensure adequate smoke dispersal,” Tucker said. “Our crew is composed of three South Carolina certified Prescribed Fire Managers, and at least two people who constantly monitor and patrol our firebreaks.”
The chosen burn area is prepared ahead of time with firebreaks, and tractors and a brush-fire truck are put in place to deal with any issues, Tucker said.
The Aiken Department of Public Safety will also patrol the perimeter of the woods to watch for any smoke accumulation on public roads, and signs informing the public of the burns will be posted at all of the formal entrances to the woods.