Restoring Fire to Native Landscapes
Florida's conservation land depends on fire for diversity.
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 public conservation land depend on fire to maintain its diversity of plant and animal life. Private landowners are important partners, as many of their lands require fire as well.
Fire Program Hits "Million" Milestone
TNC's Florida fire program started in 1979. Since then, the chapter has led or participated in over 3,500 controlled burns on over 220 sites working with a wide variety of agency, private and non-profit partners to achieve 1.5 million acres safely burned, resulting in healthy, diverse and resilient landscapes that also reduce the intensity of large wildfires.
Long ago, when Florida was free of roads and houses, fire was a normal occurrence. Bolts of lightning would start a fire that meandered along, stopping at rivers or wetlands. This natural pattern has since been interrupted by the steady growth of development, often cutting through fire-dependent landscapes. As a result, some conservation lands have not been burned for decades. So, TNC's Florida Fire Team will lead or assist with prescribed fires (also called controlled burns) to help keep nature in better balance, restoring the regenerative and vital process to the land.
Fire can also help keep non-native, invasive species in check and natural areas from becoming overgrown. Regular prescribed fire may reduce the intensity of a wildfire by reducing fuel loads such as dead limbs and leaves.
The Burn Begins
Prescribed fire is conducted by a team of highly skilled and experienced professionals. A “burn boss” organizes and supervises the event based on a written plan and schedule. Strict safety procedures protect the crew, nearby residents and private property. Conditions such as weather, wind and drought factors factors are monitored continuously by the Burn Boss, and must be within the parameters of the Prescription before the burn is implemented. Chelsea MacKenzie, the Land Management Specialist for the Central Florida Program, explains the process in the video below.
Some staff will light a line of fire using drip torches or other ignition devices. Others drive trucks carrying supplies and water to be used to control or supress fire. ATVs and even helicopters or trained horses may be on site, along with specialized tools. All of this equipment allows for the careful application of fire and water at the right time, resulting in the fire being “shepherded” across the Burn Unit.
Native animals escape
Many of Florida’s threatened and endangered key animal species depend upon fire:
- 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.
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.
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 two percent of a once-magnificent southeastern United States forest remains. Prescribed fire keeps the system alive.
What challenges to implementing fire does TNC address?
- Training: The Conservancy employs the best trainers to groom and mentor fire leaders, using classroom work and field experience to lead federal fire courses, as well as fire training for private landowners.
- Policy: Having strong laws and rules in place that protect the act of implementing fire safely within Florida’s lands is critical to the controlled burning success that Florida has demonstrated over many decades. TNC works at the Government Relations level with agency directors and legislators to promote fire’s benefits to both the natural lands and public safety.
- Education: Some Florida residents–especially newcomers–are unaware of the natural role that fire has played in this state, or they may be concerned about smoke. TNC gives public presentations and informs the media on these issues.
Partnerships are critical to success
TNC is one of only a few nonprofit organizations that adheres to National Wildfire Coordinating Group fire qualifications, allowing our fire crews to collaborate on controlled burns with federal, state and local agencies. TNC also cooperates with other groups in Florida and the Caribbean.
Meet the Burn Boss
TNC’s Florida Fire Team does some of our most dangerous and important work. Overseeing the crew is fire manager Zachary Prusak, who plans burns, works with partners to set safe and ecologically appropriate fires on the ground, and handles the training of crews. According to Zach, supervising a fire is 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.
“Anyone who says they know exactly what a fire will do at all times is dangerously overconfident, and they will soon learn that we must become a student of fire and learn from every burn. 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 the fire crew on the line. Supervising a fire is a tremendous responsibility, both to the environment and the people on the fire team. And there’s 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.
“There are several ways help our efforts. 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 fire line 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!”