When thick black clouds of smoke billow up over the horizon, the reaction of some Bulloch County residents is to call 911.
But during late spring and early summer months, those smoke clouds usually mean someone is burning off a wheat field.
Farmers harvesting wheat often follow the crop with another after either harrowing the stubble under or burning the fields to get rid of the wheat stubble, said Bulloch County Extension Agent Wes Harris. Sometimes they will even plant through the stubble, but if they don’t have the right equipment to handle such soil and water conservation measures, burning or harrowing the land is best.
With the bumper crop of wheat this year, plentiful rains over late winter and early spring mean an especially thick amount of wheat straw. Farmers usually bale the straw and sell it as well as the wheat grains, but the stubble left behind can be thick.
“It is difficult to plant in thick stubble, and when the rain delayed wheat harvest, farmers are pushed (for time) to plant new crops (behind the wheat),” he said.
With time being important and farmers hurrying to prepare fields for new crops, “it is faster to burn than to harrow,” he said.
Burning the wheat stubble also helps control weeds and insects.
But burning off the fields can be dangerous, and safety measures need to be in place, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said.
“Burning wheat fields can be very dangerous, but I understand the necessity,” he said. Usually farmers notify the Georgia Forestry Commission to obtain burn permits, and the forestry staff contacts Bulloch County 911 operators to let them know where the burning will take place.
Every time a field is burned, 911 operators “get one or two calls” from people asking about the clouds of smoke or reporting the possibility of a wildfire.
Sometimes land owners will also burn tracts of woodlands in what forestry rangers call “prescribed burns.”
Wendy Burnett, the public information director for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said these prescribed burns are essential to “reduce hazardous fuels” that will keep structures and other property from burning in case of a wildfire, to prepare woodland sites for planting seedlings, improve wildlife habitats, control insects and disease, and enhance appearance.
After a burn, land may be blackened for a time but “comes back really green,” she said.
Both she and Wynn stressed the importance of obtaining a burn permit before starting a fire of any kind. Permits may be obtained from the Georgia Forestry Commission’s Bulloch County office at (912) 681-5920.
Burning large areas of property can be dangerous, and Wynn recommends having enough people to help keep the flames under control and help if anyone ends up in the line of danger.
“Wheat stubble burns fast, and you wouldn’t want to become trapped,” he said.
A man in Ellabell died in 2010 when he was trapped by flames while burning off property.
Wynn said the area William DuBose, 67, of Walter Williams Road, was burning was not a wheat field, but just an area of winter overgrowth at his home near the Bulloch-Bryan county line.
At the time of the fire, authorities suspected DuBose’s clothing caught fire as he burned off his property.
Wynn said people who plan to burn off a wheat field or other tract should call the Bulloch County Public Safety office at (912) 489-1661 and report their plans, as well as get a burn permit from Georgia Forestry. That way, when the calls come in from curious or concerned residents, authorities will know what is causing the clouds of smoke and Bulloch County firefighters won’t respond to a situation the farmers and landowners have under control, he said.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.