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Shaped by Fire: Prescribed Burning Benefits Ecosystem Restoration

By Kate Spratt Posted on December 20, 2018

Black plumes of smoke bellow up from beneath distant pine trees, sending silvery bits of ash fluttering down from a crisp blue sky. After several hours, a section of woods that was once impassable due to thick undergrowth is now black and bare, with seemingly little life observed beyond the pines whose stout trunks garnish the char of hot flame.

Several more hours pass and gopher tortoises begin to emerge from protective burrows, red cockaded woodpeckers return to their cavities in longleaf pines, and snakes of all varieties cruise fire breaks and charred ground.

What makes a “good fire”?

Rising columns of dark smoke and the resulting black woodland scene may look desolate to some; however, this fire is what is known as “good fire” and is a critical management technique to restore natural communities and protect those human communities that many of us call home.

Fire has shaped Florida ecosystems for millennia, long before housing developments, shopping centers, and highways dotted and crisscrossed the state. Prior to these man-made barriers, lightning would ignite fire on the Florida landscape and it would burn for thousands of acres.

Over time, these fires created unique natural communities which have an association of characteristic plants and animals, all of which depend on their relationship with fire. In these types of ecosystems, the interaction between fire and the landscape is imperative for their continued survival.

Flatwoods smolder after prescribed fire has moved through the area. Image by Kate Spratt.

Prescribed Fire is a Tool

Prescribed fire, previously known as a controlled burn, is a tool that natural resource managers use to mimic the natural forest fires which once occurred across many Florida habitats.

A prescription is a specific set of conditions that prioritizes the safety of the public and fire staff, weather, and probability of meeting the burn objectives. These prescriptions are constructed by specially trained fire professionals, called burn bosses, who begin their work on a specific burn months in advance.

Each prescription considers the desired objectives, available fuels, size of the burn, the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn, and conditions under which it may be suppressed.

Prior to fire every touching the ground, personnel participating in the prescribed fire process must go through extensive training and complete rigorous annual physical assessments. Each property area, in our local case the state park, must complete a fire management plan which addresses when and where to burn and a prescribed burn plan which outlines how to reach the burning objectives.

The Burn Boss evaluates the success of the burn with crew bosses at the end of the day. Image by Kate Spratt.

Each burn has a go/no-go checklist that is the final step prior to ignition. Once fire is on the ground, specialized equipment and techniques are used to maintain safety of personnel and property while carrying out a successful burn.

Once a prescribed fire meets its objectives, fire crew complete “mop-up” which extinguishes burning or smoldering fuels in an effort to make the area “safe.”

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park to conduct a Prescribed Fire

In the coming months, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park has plans to conduct a prescribed fire.

The areas scheduled to be burned, called zones, are along US19, Spring Cove Road, and near Halls River Road. Park Rangers have spent the last year working to prepare these zones, including removal of heavy fuels that could contribute to excessive smoke, such as downed trees from recent hurricanes.

Prescribed Fire Public Program January 31 at the Wildlife Park

The state park will host a public program to educate the community about the importance of prescribed fire and what to expect from the anticipated burn at the wildlife park.

The program will be held on Thursday, January 31st at 6PM in the Florida Room on US19. Please contact Ranger Kate Spratt at 352-628-5445 with any questions about the program.

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