After the Burn: A Rare Look Behind the Lines on the Fort Ord Cleanup

Oct 22, 2015

Any day now the Army hopes to resume prescribed burns on the former Fort Ord.  It’s part of the clean-up process, which began when the Army base closed more than 20 years ago.

To find out what happens after the smoke clears, I took a rare trip into the burn area with Lyle Shurtleff.  He’s Munitions Response Manager for the Fort Ord Environmental Cleanup.  

Shurtleff pulls his SUV to a stop on a  road in the impact area of the former Fort Ord.  It’s where for nearly 80 years soldiers trained with bullets, bombs and hand grenades: just to name a few of the munitions that could still be out there.

“This was probably down range from anti-tank target.  There were old silhouette tanks up in this area and over on the east side, that they probably fired at,” he says of the field where we stopped.

When explosives didn’t work in the impact area, and leaving them behind wouldn’t interfere with future training, that’s exactly what the soldiers did.  They left things where they fell.

That wasn’t a problem until the base closed back in 1994, and plans for this land changed.   The impact area is 8000 acres, 1500 of which has already been cleared.  The remaining 6500 acres of this former training ground is now part of the Fort Ord National Monument, though it’s an area the will remain off limits during the ongoing cleanup.

“This is unusual for me too. Even I’m not authorized to get this close when they are working,” says Shurtleff.

We walk down the road alongside a piece of land that’s already been cleared by one of the Army’s prescribed burns.  The fires remove decades of vegetation growth, so that unexploded ordinance (UXO) teams can come in and find what was left behind.

Seven men are out in the field.  They’re one of several UXO teams working in the impact area.  Team Lead Dan Rivera walks up in a t-shirt, cargo pants, and a florescent vest.  “We might as well be comfortable with what we’re doing, so no we don’t wear the bomb suit,” says Rivera.

Most of what they find they can just pick up and move to a secure collection point where they later blow it all up at the same time.  But a every now and then, they do find something even they shouldn’t touch.

“That’s called a BIP.  We blow it in place.  What happens is we get everybody out of the area and then we get rid of it right away, so it’s not a hazard to anybody,” says Rivera.

Finding what the Army left behind is meticulous work.  Rivera points out wooden stakes in the field that create 100 x 100 foot grids.    UXO teams members walk down the lanes with metal detectors and clear the surface of the ground one square foot at a time.

“We’ve got one man in each lane working his way up, sweeping his machine 100% comes back and then moves on to the next lane.  Once that grid is clear.  I sign off on it and we move to the next grid, and so on and so on,” says Rivera.

About half of the impact area has been burned and then cleared by UXO teams.  Usually the clean-up happens in that order.  But this year is different. 

The near 500 acres the Army hopes to burn has already been cleared by the UXO teams because what they found there simply wasn’t safe to burn first.  Again Lyle Shurtleff.

“They’re really big bombs.  The biggest that the Army would fire from a cannon.  It has a large area where it throws hazardous fragments, and that’s what makes it dangerous,” says Shurtleff.

The burn will go on as planned because it’s part of the habitat management plan, but exactly when it will happen is unknown.

“There’s no guarantee were going to burn anything until the morning of the burn,” says Chris Duymich, Prescribed Burn Manager.

That’s because they’re waiting for the perfect weather conditions, which are expected this time of year.

“We are looking for a clear day.  We are looking for a relatively warm day and no winds.  Around here, you know that’s not too often,” says Duymich.

Between waiting on perfect weather and the square foot by square foot clearance the UXO teams must do in the impact area, it’s difficult for Duymich to pinpoint when they’ll be done.

“Considering everything, we say about eight to ten years to finish up what we’re doing.  But that could be five years, that could be 15 years,” says Duymich. 

Then the land will be turned over to the Bureau of Land Management.  It’s going to be part of the habitat reserve at the Fort Ord National Monument. Details of public access are still being ironed out.  

Click here to learn more about the prescribed burns or to sign up for notification.

Click here for the Fort Ord Prescribed Burn Weather Outlook.