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 conservation land depends on fire to maintain its diversity of plant and animal life.
Fire Program Hits "Million" Milestone
The Florida fire program started in 1979. Here are some statistics on the program:
- 1 million acres burned
- 2,950 fires
- 188 sites
- 29 agency partners
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. This natural pattern has been interrupted by development. Some conservation lands have not been burned for decades. So, the 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. 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 around a written plan and schedule. Strict safety procedures protect the crew, nearby residents and private property. 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.
Native animals escape
Florida’s 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 2 percent of a once-magnificent southeastern United States forest remains. Prescribed fire keeps the system alive.
What problems does the Conservancy address?
- Training: The Conservancy employs the best trainers to groom fire leaders, using classroom work and field experience.
- Policy: Because support for fire from Florida’s policy leaders is inconsistent, the Conservancy works with agency directors and legislators to promote fire’s benefits and improve management.
- Education: Some Florida residents–especially newcomers–are afraid of fire or concerned about smoke. The Conservancy gives public presentations and informs the media.
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.
Learn About Prescribed Fire in Florida
Meet the Burn Boss
The Conservancy’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.
“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 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!”