Florida Fire Team member Steve Morrison has consulted on controlled burns as far away as Russia.
The Nature Conservancy draws brilliant employees: scientists, land stewards of all stripes and a wealth of creative thinkers. But the highly-trained, professional men and women who serve on the Florida Fire Program’s fire and ecosystem support teams do some of its most dangerous and important work.
Nature.org spoke with Zachary Prusak, the Conservancy’s Florida Fire Manager.
Zachary Prusak is the fire manager of The Nature Conservancy's Florida program. He is responsible for the Conservancy's controlled burns throughout the state of Florida.
What’s it like to supervise a fire?
It’s a cross between lion taming and a game of chess. Once you let a lion out of his cage, you have to keep him under control or you’ll wind up being eaten! A fire also breathes, moves, eats and can strike unexpectedly. And – like in chess – fire supervisors have to think two or three moves ahead.
We learn from every fire. Anyone who says they know exactly what a fire will do is a fool, and a dangerous one. We begin a fire only after necessary preparations are in place and after planning for many contingencies. Then a lot comes down to the training, experience and the teamwork of fire crew on the line. Supervising a fire is a tremendous responsibility, both to the environment and the people on the fire team.
It sounds like there is great camaraderie among the Fire Team.
Our lives depend upon each other. Crews literally “go through fire” together on as many as 100 fires in a season, and form a tightly-knit group. We end up covered in dirt, grime and smoke – and with solid friendships.
Some folks are just characters. Steve Morrison, also known as “Sticky,” works out of our Tiger Creek Preserve on the Lake Wales Ridge. The Gandalf of Fire, he’s been at it for 23 years and has probably trained half of Florida’s professionals.
Does the Florida Fire Team only work on controlled burns?
No, sometimes our conservation partners will call every trained hand to help put out a wildfire or make sure a smoldering wildfire stays put. And if conditions are right and we have the approval of local authorities, the Conservancy can sometimes manage a lightning-strike fire – a perfectly natural event – to gain some incidental benefits.
This happened on our Perdido River Nature Preserve in northwest Florida where the southern half of the property had not burned for far too long. We’d just acquired the place and were short of staff and funds. But Mother Nature jumped the gun on us! A dry lightning strike, right before Mother’s Day 2007, torched a wildfire that spread quickly.
Division of Forestry firefighters with aerial support planes and helicopters turned out to help, along with volunteer teams from around Pensacola. The wildfire was contained by morning – with no injuries or damage to structures. But for two weeks we herded it along, controlling small fires that popped up in unburned pockets. We had begun controlled burns in the northern preserve, so there was no danger of wildfire spreading there.
Thanks to great teamwork with our partners and professionalism all around, a potential disaster was averted! And, about 500 acres within a seriously overgrown landscape were rejuvenated by fire. Everybody ended up happy: staff, partners, neighbors and gopher tortoises. See a slideshow of plants and animals that depend on fire.
Let’s hear another story.
I was burn boss at a major prescribed fire – one of the most stressful ever. There was tremendous excitement: eight different agencies and 30 staff, working 25 delicate acres right in the heart of Titusville. Really, there were more people than acres. Among other things, we were protecting a plant, Dicerandra, found nowhere else on Earth.
Any of several things could have turned this into a nightmare. We were surrounded by power lines, major highways and would-be spectators. And nothing bad happened! No kidding, this is the best kind of story.
How do you determine which sites to burn?
The end result is what it’s all about. If we’re concerned about Florida scrub-jays, we’ll work to restore their habitat. They are a keystone species – what’s good for the scrub-jay is good for the whole habitat. Scrub-jays require open areas with lots of low-growing plants, so their habitat is burned fairly often.
Sometimes in Florida we use fire to reduce an overgrowth of fuels. Plants never stop growing here, so an area can become like a book of matches. Invasive species such as the exotic cogongrass and the native but invasive titi burn hot, and can change the surrounding plant diversity. If they take over a natural area, the potential for dangerous wildfire increases. See a video about why we burn in North America.
I’m told that you find a way to bring ants into almost any discussion.
Why yes, that’s true! Many ants will snack on the seeds of plants that grow in fire-dependent habitats. They often store these seeds a few inches underground. When a fire comes through, maybe in a couple of years, the slightly-nipped seeds are protected from fire but then able to sprout and grow in the area just cleared by fire. So you see – there IS a correlation between ants, plants and fire.
How can Conservancy stakeholders get involved or learn more about the Fire Team?
There are several ways to help. To be an actual member of the fire crew, you must complete training for a position on the line and pass annual fitness tests and refresher courses. You don’t have to work the fireline to help the plants and animals that need fire teams, however. You can support the Florida Fire Program financially – those funds keep the fires burning! Get Involved