Florida Fire Helps Forests
David Printiss is interviewed by CNN before a controlled burn at The Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.
Why Burn in North America?
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See how wildfires occur naturally when lightning strikes a forest and starts a fire in a forest or grassland, or how a controlled burn can be set by land managers and conservationists to mimic some of the effects of these natural fires. Watch a video
The Nature Conservancy supports the safe and ecologically appropriate use of fire in Florida, where almost 70 percent of the state’s 9 million acres of conservation land depends on fire to maintain its diversity of plant and animal life.
Long ago, when Florida was free of roads and houses, fire was a normal occurrence. Bolts of lightning would start a wildfire that meandered along, stopping at rivers or wetlands. Many native plants and animals still require regular fire for survival – just as they need rain and sunshine.
However, human development has interrupted this natural pattern. Some conservation lands may not have burned for decades. So The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Fire Team performs prescribed fires (also called controlled burns) to help keep nature in better balance.
Fire helps keep non-native, invasive species in check and natural areas from becoming overgrown. And, regular prescribed fire may reduce the intensity of a wildfire by reducing fuel loads such as dead limbs and leaves.
Baby, it's hot!
Prescribed fire is conducted by a team of highly skilled and experienced professionals. A “burn boss” organizes and supervises the event around a written plan and schedule. Strict safety procedures ensure the safety of the crew, nearby residents and private property, and conditions such as weather, wind and drought factors must be just right.
Some staff will light a line of fire using drip torches. Others drive trucks carrying supplies and water to be used as a control agent. ATVs and even helicopters or trained horses may be on site, along with specialized tools.
Florida Fire Manager Zach Prusak has many stories about some of the Conservancy’s most flamboyant characters and fascinating work.
Native animals escape
Thousands of Florida’s key animal species depend upon fire. These include:
- reptiles: gopher tortoise and indigo snake
- mammals: Florida mouse and Florida panther
- birds: Florida scrub-jay, red-cockaded woodpecker and burrowing owl
During a fire, as many as 40 species take refuge in gopher tortoise burrows. These wide, cool burrows average 15 feet long and 6 ½ feet deep. Other species escape danger in their own way.
Native plants rebound
After a controlled burn, a blackened field quickly revives with new, green life. Pitcher plants, many orchids, cutthroat and wiregrasses are among key species that thrive upon fire. Indeed, hundreds of Florida’s plant species would be lost without it. See a slideshow.
Longleaf pine is the perfect example. Its life cycle begins when fire prepares the soil for a pine seed to germinate by clearing the ground and turning leaves, dropped pine needles and sticks into fertilizer. For years a young seedling looks like a fuzzy pipe cleaner, its bud protected by tight needles while it grows a deep taproot. A second fire frees the bud and a tree quickly shoots high into the sky, above the fire line. Fire literally stimulates the next generation of this fabulous tree.
A longleaf pine forest is one of the most endangered systems in North America; only 2 percent of a once-magnificent southeastern United States forest remains. Prescribed fire keeps the system alive. See a video about why we burn in North America.
Yes, in my backyard!
The Conservancy owns approximately 61,000 acres of Florida conservation land, much of which needs fire. In 2010, the Florida Fire Team burned 7,478 acres of these sites, including:
- pine rocklands within the Florida Keys
- pine flatwoods at The Disney Wilderness Preserve
- sandhill habitat at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve
- scrub habitat at the Tiger Creek Preserve
Conservancy teams also assist conservation partners who may lack experience or crews. In 2010, they helped tackle challenging projects on 133,551 acres, from base camps at:
- Tiger Creek Preserve on the Lake Wales Ridge, protecting ancient scrub habitat;
- Ordway-Swisher Biological Station outside Gainesville, focusing on northeast Florida;
- Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve; and
- the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership, focusing on the Panhandle.
What problems does the Conservancy address?
- More professionals are needed to provide more prescribed fire. The Conservancy employs the best trainers available to groom fire leaders, using classroom work and hot-‘n-dirty field experience.
- Support for fire from Florida’s policy leaders is inconsistent. So the Conservancy works with agency directors and legislators to promote fire’s benefits and improve management.
- Some Florida residents – especially newcomers – are afraid of fire or concerned about smoke, and government and media representatives may be, as well. The Conservancy gives public presentations, informs the media and creates brochures and pamphlets.
Partnerships are critical to success
The Nature Conservancy is the only nonprofit organization that is a National Wildfire Coordinating Group partner, able to collaborate on controlled burns with federal, state and local agencies. The Conservancy also cooperates with other groups in Florida and the Caribbean.
Prescribed fire is a valuable tool to help preserve the diversity of life on Earth – now and for future generations. Have we kindled your interest?