Fighting fire with efficiency

Wildfires raged in SE Georgia.

Georgia landowners suffered record losses in 2011 due to devastating wildfires. The Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC), the agency responsible for suppressing wildfires, counted 9,366 fires in FY 2011 – 41 percent more than the five-year average. The largest is the Honey Prairie Complex fire, where more than 309,000 acres of federal land has burned near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastGeorgia.

“The fires of 2011 were intense and difficult to suppress,” said Jason Gillis, assistant district manager for the Satilla district in southeast Georgia.  “They were hotter than historical fires due to extensive drought and extremely low fuel moisture. Some of the fires had long range spotting, which made them almost impossible to contain. Limited resources and high fire numbers allowed fires to grow larger than normal.”

While the threats were enormous and the resources to fight them limited, the GFC has maximized its response efforts through greater operational efficiencies developed and implemented by GFC employees.

Automated burn permitting:  People needing to burn hand-piled natural vegetation can now obtain a free burn permit by using the GFC online system or by calling a toll-free number.  This efficiency has reduced the number of burn permits issued by forest rangers by several hundred thousand annually, allowing the rangers to provide higher-value services toGeorgia’s forest landowners.

Centralized dispatching:  The GFC’s 113 local field offices once handled dispatch calls, tying up phone lines and creating extra work. Now, dispatch specialists coordinate efforts on a statewide level from a central response center. Plans are underway for two additional centers.

Prescribed burn scheduling:  The GFC receives more requests to assist with prescribed burns (fires conducted intentionally to improve forest health and prevent wildfires) than local units can handle without backup from other counties. An online scheduling tool shows district personnel availability.

Greater communication:  GFC management now involves input from all levels of the organization in decision making and “after action reviews,” allowing for more opportunities for frontline input. Additional information-sharing with landowners and local, state and federal partners continues to generate ideas for improvement.

These and other improvements mean rangers can spend more time fighting fires and less time handling paperwork.

“I am tremendously proud of the way our GFC professionals rose to the occasion to protect the lives and property ofGeorgiacitizens in this record-breaking year,” said GFC Director Robert Farris.  “We owe them a debt of gratitude for their dedication in going above and beyond the call of duty, often times being deployed away from home for many weeks. Their proactive involvement to improve processes has resulted in efficiencies and effectiveness that allow us to perform in a manner not otherwise possible during these difficult economic times.”

Pictured on home page: A GFC ranger conducts a prescribed (intentional) burn.

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