The Army normally lights one or two prescribed burns – carefully managed fires – on Fort Ord land each year. From 1999 to 2002, no burns were done while a lawsuit was resolved and additional studies performed.
Burns resumed in 2003. They are done on land located over a mile south of CSUMB.
The fires burn off vegetation. That allows technicians to safely enter and clean up areas where there could still be munitions and explosives of concern. These items are left over from the days when Fort Ord was an Army training center. The Army's proposed cleanup of a 6,500-acre portion of its historic Impact Area will continue for eight to 10 years.
Even after the property has been cleaned up and transferred to the Bureau of Land Management for civilian use, prescribed burns will continue because:
- Periodic prescribed burns rejuvenate the unique plant and animal habitat at Fort Ord. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies encourage the practice. The historic Impact Area is a habitat reserve for central maritime chaparral, which requires periodic fires to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Successful management of this habitat reserve is a key component of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority's plan to make up for the habitat loss from designated development uses.
- Burning off the brush in small, carefully managed fires keeps the vegetation from building up to the point that an accidental fire could quickly become so large that it might be difficult to control and could possibly burn beyond the boundaries of Fort Ord land.
Sign up for notification of impending burn
Controlled burns cause smoke. Residents of nearby areas who are concerned about the impacts of smoke may want to sign up for a direct notification program established by the Army. Anyone providing contact information will be notified by text, e-mail, or by an automated telephone message that a prescribed burn could occur shortly (within a day or two), and notified again when the burn is ignited. To sign up for the program, register online or call (831) 242-7383 or 1-800-852-9699. People who wish to be notified must register, even if they did so in previous years. The Army does not share this contact information.
Planned burn program for 2014
No burns will be conducted in 2014.
Two burns – in areas approximately three miles from CSUMB's main campus and four miles from the East Campus housing area – were held in 2013. No burns were conducted in 2011 or 2012.
Do you travel near Fort Ord?
• For a prescribed burn at Unit 7 or Unit 10, commuter traffic will not be affected.
Do you use Fort Ord trails to hike, bike, or ride your horse?
• For a prescribed burn at Unit 7 or Unit 10, several of the nearby trails will be closed for a short time. Please stay on trails north of Gigling Road.
How is the decision to have a prescribed burn made?
Many agencies are involved in the decision to stage a burn.
From July to December, a meteorologist checks the weather. When optimal weather is forecast, other meteorologists will be involved. This weather team includes scientists from the Naval Postgraduate School, National Weather Service, Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District and California Air Resources Board. If the weather team agrees on a forecast, the Army will verify other key factors such as the availability of local fire resources and equipment such as helicopters.
If it looks like weather, equipment and personnel are available, the Army fire chief gets ready for a prescribed burn by calling in equipment and personnel. At this point, people who have registered for the direct notification program will be alerted that a burn is imminent.
The weather continues to be monitored. The equipment and personnel may be in place and standing by for one or more days – the fire chief will start the prescribed burn when a meteorologist confirms the weather conditions are aligning with the forecast. Another notification will be made when the fire is ignited and when it is complete.
How can impact of the smoke be minimized?
The Army works with the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to conduct the burns in a manner that minimizes smoke impacts to the surrounding communities. This includes conducting the burns when an appropriate combination of atmospheric conditions and vegetation moisture levels occur.
To avoid or reduce exposure during a burn:
• Avoid strenuous work or exercise outdoors
• Shut windows and doors
• Set air conditioning controls in the “recycle” mode to prevent outside air from being drawn into your home
• Drink plenty of fluids to keep respiratory membranes moist
• Seek medical care if breathing becomes difficult
• Consider using an over-the-counter nasal moisturizing spray (saline).
People with asthma or other respiratory issues should consult their doctor. Those with heart or lung disease, older adults, and people with children may want to talk with their doctor about whether and when to leave the area.
Information on the health affects of smoke from fires can be found on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.
For a copy of the EPA fact sheet “How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health,” or for more information on the Fort Ord prescribed burns, please call the Fort Ord environmental cleanup hotline at (831) 242-7383 or 1-800-852-9699 or visit the Fort Ord environmental cleanup website.
Why does the Army use prescribed burns?
From 1917 until 1994, Fort Ord served as a training and staging area for the U.S. Army. During those years, soldiers fired millions of rounds of small arms ammunition, grenades, mortars, rockets and artillery – items referred to as "ordnance and explosives." A small percentage did not explode and could still be triggered if disturbed, creating a serious safety hazard. Since 1994, the Army has spent millions of dollars cleaning up the unexploded ordnance.
But there are still areas the Army needs to clean up, particularly land known as the historic Impact Area. This land is located over a mile south of CSUMB. Many places at Fort Ord – such as residences, office buildings, the golf courses, and some tracts of open land – have no history of ordnance and explosives having been used there. Many of these areas have been transferred to organizations such as CSUMB and the University of California. Other areas have been systematically cleaned up and transferred to community organizations or local governments for use as parks, or for economic development.
The Impact Area consists of former artillery training ranges. The ordnance and explosives present at or near the surface of these ranges are highly explosive and so sensitive that they can be detonated at the slightest disturbance. Some portions of the Impact Area are near residential areas and schools, and they are accessible, so the temptation to trespass is high.
Fences are not 100 percent effective at keeping people out of restricted areas. Experience shows that some people, particularly children, think a fence is simply a challenge. In 1999, children from Fitch Middle School trespassed onto ranges 43-48 and collected a number of "inert practice" rifle grenades that were present on the surface. The practice grenades are non-explosive, and release a colored dye upon impact. Fortunately, the children had collected only inert practice grenades in spite of the fact that high explosive rifle grenades were also present on the surface of these ranges.
After this incident, the Army reinforced the fences with razor wire, and added warning signs and patrols.
The Army believes that the unexploded ordnance must be quickly removed to prevent injuries to people who trespass. The regulatory agencies also want the land to be cleaned up as soon as possible.
These highly explosive items also pose significant safety challenges to the technicians who have been hired to remove them. Cleaning up unexploded ordnance and explosives is a dangerous job under even the best circumstances, but it is particularly dangerous if workers can't see the ground where they are walking because of the thick vegetation.
Consequently, the Army's experts have determined that the ordnance and explosives cannot be safely removed until the vegetation is thoroughly cleared.
As a result of an Army study (Track 3 Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study), prescribed burning was selected as the chief method of vegetation clearance in the Impact Area.
One of the key habitats at Fort Ord is called central maritime chaparral. Maritime chaparral has evolved with fire being a critical part of its natural life cycle.
This plant community – and the animal species that dwell in it – are dependent on fire to recycle the nutrients, expose the mineral soil and stimulate germination of the seeds that have accumulated since the last fire. This natural succession allows the plant community to rejuvenate and enhances the natural diversity of this rare and unique habitat. This habitat does not rejuvenate well if it is cleared by cutting.
Central maritime chaparral is a dominant habitat type at Fort Ord and is identified as a protected plant community in the Installation-Wide Multispecies Habitat Management Plan. Approximately 50 to 85 percent of the worldwide distribution of several rare, threatened and endangered plants in central maritime chaparrral habitat occur at Fort Ord. These species are designated as special-status species under the habitat management plan. Vernal pond habitat is scattered throughout Fort Ord and is also a sensitive habitat. Central maritime chaparral is an extremely rare plant community.
The Army has identified 8,150 acres of land covered by maritime chaparral where there is suspected unexploded ordnance and explosives. Of this, approximately 6,500 acres are designated as future habitat reserves that will be managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as part of the Fort Ord National Monument. For example, approximately 435 acres of the 580-acre burn area at Ranges 43-48 contains central maritime chaparral and is designated as future habitat reserve. Under the terms of the Habitat Management Plan, the Army is supposed to use prescribed burns as the primary method of brush clearance in designated habitat reserves containing central maritime chaparral. The Habitat Management Plan limits the burning of central maritime chaparral in designated habitat reserves to no more than 800 acres a year. In 1997, the Army and many other entities (such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Monterey Peninsula College, city of Marina, etc.) signed a Habitat Management Plan (HMP) with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect rare and endangered species and their habitats at the former Fort Ord and to allow the development of other areas. The Fish & Wildlife Service determined that the Habitat Management Plan will protect maritime chaparral if the Army and future land managers conduct prescribed burns.
Even after the Army has completed all cleanup of ordnance and explosives, the Bureau of Land Management will continue to use prescribed burns as a way to rejuvenate habitat and control the amount of fuel so that an accidental fire would not burn unchecked.
The air emissions study
Although prescribed burns are a normal occurrence in California, some residents of the Monterey Bay area have expressed concern that smoke from fires at Fort Ord contains dangerous pollutants. The Army and regulatory agencies have conducted extensive studies that show:
- A prescribed burn at Fort Ord is no different from a prescribed burn on any other land.
- The fire will detonate some unexploded ordnance or explosives, but the emissions from these ordnance and explosives is small and well below health protective regulatory standards.
The Army has developed a smoke management program to minimize exposure. No one believes that being exposed to smoke is good for people. Breathing smoke can be a problem for some people with existing health problems. People with known respiratory problems should consult with their health care provider.
No radioactive weapons on Fort Ord land
There are no radioactive weapons on the land at Fort Ord.
Some local residents have claimed that the Army used depleted uranium shells, and fires will release radioactivity into the air. This claim is not true.
According to Fort Ord records, three 55-millimeter depleted uranium rounds were stored in Building 3708 at Fort Ord in the final years of its operation. These rounds were brought to train personnel in weapons set-up, so that troops would understand the amount of propulsion they would need to fire such rounds. The rounds were never fired. When Fort Ord was closed, the shells were moved to another military installation.
After Fort Ord closed, the Army checked radiation levels at Building 3708. There were no readings above normal background levels. The California Department of Health Services concurs that there is no radiological health hazard at Building 3708.
No use of chemical weapons at Fort Ord
The Army has conducted extensive record reviews and has not found records indicating that chemical munitions were ever used at Fort Ord. However, in March 1997, during an unexploded ordnance removal action, the Army found two chemical agent identification sets buried approximately 1 foot deep in a wooded area. These kits contained 24 small glass vials each holding 40 millileters of dilute solutions of chemical material.
These kits were used decades ago to train soldiers about the characteristic odors and physical sensations of chemical weapons used in warfare. The training kits were removed using an established protocol. No additional training kits have been found during the ordnance and explosives cleanup, even though more than 13 million holes have been investigated. There is no evidence that chemical weapons were ever used at the former Fort Ord.
Poison oak contains a substance called urushiol that causes a rash in some people. This substance can be carried in smoke when poison oak is burned. Very little of the land where prescribed burns will occur contains poison oak – this land is predominantly central maritime chaparral habitat. Studies by the Army showed that the percentage of poison oak coverage in maritime chaparral habitats is very small, less than 1 percent of the land. Poison oak is more prevalent in upland oak habitat, but the areas being burned have almost none of this habitat.
The Army has received no reports of poison oak cases as a result of past fires and prescribed burns, even among the firefighters who managed them.
The fire may set off some of the unexploded items in the training ranges, including rockets and projectiles. The explosives that remain could detonate the item in the heat of the fire and send some fragments flying through the air.
The Army has considerable knowledge about the characteristics of each of the shells and explosives at the site, and has calculated the maximum distance that shrapnel from one of these items could fly. There is no danger of shrapnel reaching CSUMB.
How fires are managed
Long before the fire, a team of prescribed burn professionals develops a burn plan for each year's burn areas. The burn plan describes the specific site conditions, weather requirements, equipment and strategies required to safely conduct the fire operations. The development of this plan is coordinated with the local air district, state air resources board, and state and federal EPA and is reviewed by local and state fire organizations.
The Army has proposed cleanup of 6,500 acres of the historic Impact Area. The land is divided into smaller areas by existing fuel break roads. These smaller areas are called defensible polygons. The size of the defensible polygons is determined by how much vegetation is in each area and by the topography, but the biggest factor is the Army (Ord Military Community) fire department's ability to safely manage the fire.
Before the fire is conducted, fuel breaks are created around each burn area. The fuel breaks are created for firefighter safety and to help contain the fire within the burn area boundary. Roads are reinforced so that the wildland fire equipment can travel around the boundary of the burn area to monitor the fire. Two more sets of fuel breaks are created (the secondary at approximately one-half mile and tertiary at one mile out from the burn areas) for increased safety and protection.
Because of the existence of munitions, the firefighters cannot go into the burn area to light or extinguish the fire. Instead, helicopters are used. The wildland fire engines and firefighters are positioned on the fuel break roads surrounding the burn area to guard and reinforce the boundary.
The decision-making team includes the Army (Ord Military Community) fire chief, who oversees the operations; a burn boss/fire behavior analyst who directs the air operations and monitors the fire from a helicopter and through infra-red technology; an assistant chief who coordinates with the burn boss and directs the ground operations; an aerial operation director who is in charge of the helicopters; meteorologists from the local air district and the project fire weather meteorologist, who monitor the weather data.
The burn boss directs and monitors operations throughout the event from a helicopter called a "command ship." A representative from the local air district is also on site to observe and document smoke behavior. In the rare event that a fire goes outside the intended boundary, the burn boss uses the infra-red camera to see through the smoke and identify the locations of spot fires. This technology allows firefighters to respond quickly to put out the unintended blaze.
How the land will be used after clean up
The Army does not decide how the land will be used in the future. These decisions are made by the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA). In 1997, the Fort Ord Reuse Authority approved an overall plan, called the Base Reuse Plan, and the environmental documents needed to support that plan. This plan was developed after an extensive public process, during which the public had numerous opportunities to provide comments. The Fort Ord Habitat Management Plan and the 1997 base reuse plan both designated the Impact Area as a habitat reserve.
Under this plan, most of the prescribed burn areas will remain in natural habitat. When the land is cleaned up, it will be turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which will manage it for recreation and as a natural area – part of the Fort Ord National Monument. In effect, this part of the former Fort Ord will become part of a 14,000-acre park, the largest in Monterey County.
• Why does the Army use prescribed burns?
The Army is cleaning up unexploded ordnance and explosives at former artillery training ranges. A small percentage of this ordnance and explosives was never detonated, and could explode if distrubed. The Impact Area is covered with heavy vegetation – chaparral brush – that prevents cleanup workers from seeing the ground. It's unsafe to enter this land until the vegetation is removed; otherwise, cleanup workers could accidentally trigger unexploded ordnance or explosives.
• Doesn't it harm the habitat to burn the vegetation?
The habitat covering the areas that need to be cleaned up, central maritime chaparral, has adapted to periodic fires and is actually rejuventated by fires. If brush is cleared using hand cutting, the habitat does not rejuventate nearly as well. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has an agreement with the Army and other agencies managing lands at the former Fort Ord that requires them to use prescribed burns in areas that are designated as habitat reserves.
• Isn't there any other way to clear the vegetation?
The Army conducted a major study to consider alternatives. All other methods involve entering the land, exposing vegetation clearance workers to potential unexploded ordance. Clearing the land by hand – in addition to being unsafe – has a harmful effect on the habitat.
• What areas will be burned?
Prescribed burns are planned in an area known as the historic Impact Area, former artillery training ranges. This area is located in the south-central part of Fort Ord, more than two miles away from CSUMB, and adjacent to Seaside and Del Rey Oaks.
• When do prescribed burns occur?
Prescribed burns may occur between July and December of each year.
• Is a prescribed burn at Fort Ord different from a prescribed burn anywhere else?
No. The Army and the environmental regulatory agencies studied this question carefully and concluded that the amount of contaminants put into the air by incidental detonation of ordnance and explosives during a fire was extremely small and well below health protective screening levels.
• Is there radioactivity in the smoke?
No. Radioactive weapons were never used at Fort Ord.
Did Fort Ord use chemical weapons?
No. Chemical weapons were never used at Fort Ord.
• Will poison oak be a problem?
Prescribed burns have been conducted at Fort Ord for years, and smoke-borne poison oak has never been reported as a problem. Poison oak is actually rare in central maritime chaparral, well under 1 percent of the total land coverage.
• Is the smoke a health hazard?
The amounts of smoke from prescribed burns should not pose a problem for most people, but could pose a problem for people with existing respiratory problems.
• What if I have respiratory ailments?
The Army will alert the community when a prescribed burn is planned. If you are sensitive to smoke, you can stay in the area, taking normal precautions such as staying indoors and avoiding extreme outdoor exercise. If you register with the Army's Direct Notification Program, you will be notified by a text message, e-mail, or by an automated telephone message that a prescribed burn could occur shortly (within a day or two) and again when the burn is started. You can sign up for this program by calling (831) 242-7383 or toll free at 1-800-852-9699, or by enrolling online.