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Controlled Burn Addresses Problems Posed by Field, Creek

By Army Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2008 – As a gentle wind swept across the tops of the overgrown stalks of vegetation here, the beauty masked the field’s true nature. Beneath the stalks of reeds lies a minefield, and in the middle of the field is a creek that floods annually.

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Australian servicemembers Maj. David Bergman and Gunnery Sgt. Brian Lee watch the progress of a controlled burn of a field at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The field was burned to allow de-mining operations to begin in the area and to clean out a creek vital to two local villages. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Coyote Creek, largely ignored for the past six years, runs across the north end of Bagram and is the primary source of water for two villages that hug a chunk of perimeter on opposite ends of the air field.

To solve a variety of issues posed by the field and the creek, the Mine Action Center here planned a controlled burn of exactly 39,725 square meters of dense brush and overgrowth using incendiary grenades, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Blunck, the MAC’s operations noncommissioned officer.

“We have it mapped out and are logging the time and location of each grenade thrown,” said Blunck, a Forsyth, Ill., native. “Using incendiary grenades lets us monitor each area as we begin to burn. If one area starts to burn too rapidly or looks like it’s about to cause an inferno, we can control it better with the fire department here.”

Burning this large swath of land began as a response to local villagers’ concerns raised through the Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team and elevated to the base commander’s attention.

Maj. David Bergman, an Australian army officer and the MAC’s officer in charge, said he took this chance to solve what amounted to several problems once all of the stages had been planned.

“The village to the west of Bagram gets flooded each wet season because the creek is backed up with six years worth of silt,” Bergman said, pointing to a map with highlighted areas indicating active mine fields and cleared mine fields on Bagram. “East of us, the village suffers from drought conditions each year.”

Bergman said a culvert that has metal grates on both sides clogs up from the silt and other debris that has drifted downstream each wet season.

“Once we began looking into the problems raised during a meeting with the village elders, we found out this project would have several effects,” Bergman explained. All of the effects are positive for all parties involved.

“They thought we were purposely blocking the water so it would flood one village and cause drought problems in the other,” he said. “What they didn’t know is that we have our own problem with it here on [Bagram Airfield].”

That problem, he said, is a major concern to commanders at all levels for medical, morale and living-condition issues. The north end of the base floods each year in the wet season, Blunck said. “That makes it rough on the troops, and really hard on us to do our mission at the same time,” he added.

The MAC hasn’t been able to clear this small piece of real estate, a precious commodity on a military base, so units can use it to increase mission capability or even build living areas. But by burning off the vegetation and undergrowth, the MAC will now be able to use its mine-clearing teams to the fullest extent and in the safest environment.

“Mechanical clearing of this area hasn’t been accomplished yet,” Australian Gunnery Sgt. Brian Lee said. “The plan is to burn this area off, then the teams can clear the area with their mine detectors.”

Though more time-consuming, he explained, using the troop-on-the-ground method is preferred over mechanical clearing in de-mining operations. The burn, he said, will allow troops to navigate the area safely and thoroughly with mine detectors.

“Once the troops get done with their sweep, we can bring in the explosive dogs,” Lee said. “If the dogs go in and certify the area, then we can hand out the certificate, which is what everyone wants.” The certificate allows a unit to claim the land, submit work proposals and begin using the land without fear of setting off a mine.

“We have people stalking us almost, or even becoming squatters, waiting on that certificate,” Lee said.

Because of the benefits the controlled burn would provide, the team wasted no time. Bergman watched with troops from the Explosive Hazardous Coordination Cell as the first grenade was tossed to start the blaze. Just 30 minutes later, three-quarters of the job was complete.

“It’s burning good,” Lee said. “The fire is headed [away from the original location] to the flightline. You may see the coyote run out, too. He came across here earlier.”

Bagram doesn’t have a problem with animals or animal control, but as Lee predicted, a coyote did come running down one of the trails that led from the flightline to the creek head. A trail of dust clouds followed behind it, each one marked with a small poof in the air as the animal ran for cover in the thick brush.

The EHCC team lofted about 30 incendiary grenades into the cordoned-off area. Each grenade was documented, then monitored for several minutes to see if the immediate area would catch fire.

Most of the grenades were on target and created the conditions the team wanted. A few near the creek head, however, didn’t get the job done.

“I’m disappointed that the grenade I threw went out,” Australian army Sgt. Lisa Tucker said after the device sputtered out in what appeared to be a large puddle hidden in the brush. But otherwise, all went well.

“There were no incidents, the wind cooperated and the burn was nice and slow,” Blunck said. “[It] didn’t take off like an inferno, like we thought it would.”

Bergman said that if the burn hadn’t been conducted now, it would have had to wait for summer because of the harsh Afghan winter.

“We aren’t going in right away to de-mine the creek bed, because we only have until the middle of November,” he said. “So we are going to send in the armored machinery to pull all of the trash and build-up out of the creek bed to allow for a natural water flow.”

With the quick fix being a return to normal water flow, the long-term fix is more involved and requires planning on the coalition’s part and maintenance on the Afghans’ part, he said.

“We will be able to build in retaining basins and better irrigation points next spring,” Bergman said. “We just don’t foresee [having] the time to do it now.”

Once the water flow problem is fixed, Lee said, the Afghan people will have to make sure the trash is cleaned out of the ditches and the water continues to flow.

About an hour and a half was all that was needed to begin the process of alleviating six years of problems. Now, the MAC and other engineers can start work on what needs to be done until winter halts their progress.

(Army Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy serves in the Combined Joint Task Force 101 Public Affairs Office.)

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U.S. Forces Afghanistan

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAustralian Army Maj. David Bergman and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Blunck, officer in charge and operations noncommissioned officer, respectively, for the Mine Action Center at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, stand on barriers at the edge of an area of overgrown vegetation before a controlled burn. The field was burned to allow de-mining operations to begin in the area and to clean out a creek vital to two local villages. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. 1st Class Jason Blunck, Mine Action Center operations noncommissioned officer, tosses the first incendiary grenade into a field at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, to start a controlled burn. The field was burned to allow de-mining operations to begin in the area and to clean out a creek vital to two local villages. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA controlled burn of a field at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, rages. The field was burned to allow de-mining operations to begin in the area and to clean out a creek vital to two local villages. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy  
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