Brian Ensley has helped fight wildfires before.
He knows how hot and intense those fires can get. The more undergrowth in a forest, the more dead trees lying there from previous storm damage, the hotter the fire grows, making it dangerous for firefighters to do their jobs.
Ensley, the park manager at Fort Mountain State Park, said he saw a need at the park to do more work to help prevent wildfires. Beginning in September, state park officials joined with other agencies to bring Fort Mountain into compliance with the Firewise Program.
On Thursday Ensley, and others who have worked on the project, were recognized for being a Firewise Community, the first state park in Georgia to achieve that status, according to Mark Wiles, wildfire prevention specialist for the Georgia Forestry Commission.
Firewise is a program geared toward helping individuals, communities and agencies prevent wildfires from becoming disasters and destroying personal property. The program is sponsored in Georgia by the U.S. Forest Service, the Georgia Forestry Commission and the National Fire Protection Association.
At the park, employees have worked to clear brush from around the buildings, including cabins that guests can rent. There is a firebreak — a gap in vegetation in a forest to prevent fire from spreading — circling a nine-acre perimeter at the park. The fire line is down the slope from the guest cabins, as well as cabins of state employees who live on the property.
“It creates an environment for us to be able to fight fire easier,” said Jeff Shaudt, fire manager for the Conasauga Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s doing their part to help firefighters.”
Wiles said officials involved in the Firewise program work with individuals, communities or agencies to identify solutions to help prevent the spread of wildfires. In a neighborhood, it may mean creating a lawn around a home. It may be removing vegetation or planting more fire-resistant vegetation around a home or structure.
“You need a defendable space around structures to prevent fire,” Wiles said. “Fort Mountain has done a good job at this. ... It has to be an ongoing effort.”
Ensley, who has been at Fort Mountain for close to 10 years, said there have been several small fires in the park.
“Fortunately they were not in an area where structures are,” he said.
But Vicky Edge, chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said the commission has been called out to respond to firefighters in the forest outside of the park’s boundaries. Having these practices in place helps protect the park from outside fires.
There are plans to renovate the CCC Tower, one of the old fire towers within the state park, and reopen it to the public, Ensley said. It was closed several years ago because it is not structurally sound.
The tower will be restored and will serve as a place for visitors to learn more about fire safety and fighting fires. The Georgia Forestry Commission is donating a tool that was used to help tower operators determine where a forest fire was seen in memory of Ray Flood, a longtime tower operator, Edge said.
Firewise was developed about 10 years ago in the western part of the country where wildfires destroy thousands of acres and homes annually, Wiles said. But there are wildfires in the East that result in property loss as well, he said.
Currently there are close to 40 Firewise Communities in Georgia. Wiles said they hope to increase that number.