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Posted 11/17/2017

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By John Barker, Mobile District, public relations specialist

One man stands between a potential wildfire and NASA’s largest rocket engine test facility, the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. That man is Quinn Kelly, a forestry technician with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District.

With wildfires recently ravaging thousands of acres in California, Kelly’s mission to keep Stennis safe is more important than ever. Last November, a wildfire started on private property near Stennis when a deer feeder battery ignited. Kelly and the Mississippi Forestry Fire Commission put the fire out but not before it consumed 40 acres of private property and about 160 acres of NASA property.

“We’ve established larger firebreaks and we’re going to add more firebreaks on that side,” Kelly said, who is the burn manager for Stennis. “We burn about 600 to 900 acres a year to help prevent forest fires.”

NASA maintains an acoustic buffer of approximately 125,000 acres around Stennis for safe rocket engine testing. It’s Kelly’s responsibility to patrol this area once a week to ensure no dwellings or structures are built there.

“Vibrations from the rocket engine testing could break windows and crack foundations,” he said.

Much of the buffer zone consists of Southern pines forests.

“Southern pine forests need to be burned,” said Dexter Bland, Mobile District forester. Working from Anniston, Ala., Bland is the temporary forester for Stennis while the Real Estate Division hires a new forester after a recent retirement.

“Some pines need fire for regeneration and fire is needed to keep fire hazard to a manageable level,” he said. “When we choose the time of burn, we can control how intense the fire will be. You will choose a day when the wind is predicted to be from a certain direction and speed and the moisture level is not too low. That makes the fire behavior more predictable. If nature chooses the time, the fire could be more intense, like in California. Or it may be when winds are high, making it possible for fire to be blown near or on structures. If the fuel load is not burned up from time to time, when we can keep things under control, it will get to a level that is very risky.”

Kelly and Bland work for the district’s Real Estate Division because timber is considered a real property commodity. “The timber and agriculture program generates money that is used to fund the natural resource needs of the installation,” said Bland. “It is not the main reason, but a good by-product of proper resource management.”

The Mobile District timber program collects approximately $1 million annually through the timber contract at Stennis as well as other military and civil contracts.

In addition to control burns, thinning timber areas keeps the forests healthy.

“If you have too much competition between trees for nutrients or water or sunlight or all of the above, they will not grow as vigorously as they could,” said Bland. “If they are too stressed, especially water stress, they are susceptible to pests such as the southern pine beetle. Even if you don’t lose trees due to disease, you will lose trees just from overcrowding. The stronger trees will shade out the lesser ones and they will die. All the dead material on the ground is wood that creates more fire hazard due to increased fuel for wildfire as well as wasted wood that could have been on fewer and healthier trees. There will always be dead plant material on the forest floor, but you try to minimize it as best you can. Timber areas and nature in general are dynamic. You cannot preserve a forest. It is going to change whether we are there are not. We can manipulate the change so that it better serves our purposes.”

The Corps’ Real Estate Division also provides service to the installations by removing trees for construction projects or changing the composition of a timber area to improve usefulness to the users of the land.

At installations like Anniston, Ala., at the National Guard Base, the Corps’ forestry program clears timber for tank maneuvers, thins timber areas for troop movements, opens areas for bivouac and camping sites and removes hazardous trees from troop movement areas.

Soon Kelly will be overseeing a Corps project to widen a viewing corridor at Stennis. The corridor is currently 100-feet-wide and the Corps will increase it to 800-feet-wide so the public can get a better view of multiple-rocket engine cluster testing.

While timber management is one of the most important aspects of Kelly’s job, it is far from the only hat he wears. Kelly is also the wildlife manager for 13,800 acres at Stennis, re-locating injured animals, like owls and deer.

“We turn them over to the volunteers at Wild at Heart, a Mississippi nonprofit,” he said.

As wildlife manager, Kelly estimates he relocates between five and 15 alligators a year and also relocates venomous and nonvenomous snakes, as well.

“It’s never boring,” said the 53-year-old Kelly, who’s been married 32 years with two children and two grandchildren. “The favorite part of my job is the diversity. I love working outside. It’s perfect. I love having the responsibilities I do. Working for the Corps and NASA is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Kelly said he’s proud to keep Stennis looking beautiful and of the many beautiful relationships he’s made with the folks who work there.  

“I look forward to planting wildflowers at the entrance to Stennis each year,” said Kelly, who has worked for the Corps for two years and worked at Stennis for a total of 14 years, mostly as a contractor. “I plant wildflowers every year that attract migrating and pollenating bees, humming birds and butterflies. NASA requests it every year since they’ve been doing this for about 30 years now.