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A fire burns at Ranges 108 and 109 on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, June 12, 2019. The Camp Pendleton Fire Department encounters several wildfires each year, some of which they will let burn in order to prevent larger fires in the future. The firefighters will also avoid fighting a fire if there's a potential for unexploded ordnance to be in the area, and will instead monitor the blaze until it goes out. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels)

Photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels

Why are some vegetation fires allowed to burn?

8 Aug 2019 | Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

Marines have been training aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to strengthen their amphibious capabilities since the base opened its gates in 1942. The base is the ideal Pacific training installation, but one of the side effects of Southern California’s dry heat is fires are more likely to occur.

Of Camp Pendleton’s 125,000 acres, approximately 114,000 acres serve as training areas for the Corps' premier West Coast expeditionary training facility. A large portion of that training area is designated strictly as impact zones for live-fire training ranges Marines regularly conduct. Due to the constant live-fire training, vegetation fires on impact zones are common but they aren’t always put out as most would expect.

“The number one reason that we don't engage impact zone fires is for safety,” said John Crook, the deputy chief of the Camp Pendleton Fire Department. “We don’t want to put anyone in there if we don't have to.”

Marines use everything from grenades and rockets to artillery and air-to-ground munitions while training at Camp Pendleton. Because of the danger of unexploded ordnance, firefighters will avoid putting out fires in impact areas as much as possible. In most cases, the fire department will monitor the fire while it burns itself out, according to Crook.

“The second reason is preserving the ecosystem,” added Crook. “We want to burn the annual grasses every year to prevent overgrowth.”

If an impact area is left unburned for an extended period of time, the overgrown grass could produce a much hotter and larger fire than normal. The base fire department lets certain fires burn or conducts prescribed burns to help minimize the risk of a larger wildfire. Since the grass is short while its burning, the heat isn't strong enough to stunt the annual reproduction of plant life.

The Camp Pendleton Fire Department is in a unique position of supporting warfighters while fighting fires themselves. A fire on a range means a lost training opportunity for Marines, and the firefighters balance the training needs of the Marines with mitigating the risk of fires getting out of control, according to Crook.

“Every Marine’s got to shoot downrange,” said Crook. “And if something happens or a fire starts, and they have to pause what they’re doing, you have to think about the logistics behind what’s taking place. How long do they have to wait till that range is available?”

With support from the base fire department, Pendleton Marines can conduct the training they need without worrying about a fire escalating beyond the impact zone, and at the same time maintain the safety and the natural state of the installation.


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Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton