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  • Shannon Carnevale

Florida’s Fiery Season:The Importance of Prescribed Burns

Fire, often perceived with apprehension, plays a pivotal role in maintaining Florida’s diverse ecosystems. Today, I’ll be chatting about the interplay between fire and nature, particularly highlighting the winter/spring fire season in Florida, and underscoring the significance of adopting firewise behaviors in neighborhoods inside or adjacent to the wildland urban interface (often abbreviated to WUI, and sometimes pronounced ‘Woo-EE’).



THE DUAL NATURE OF FIRE IN FLORIDA

In Florida, fire acts as a double-edged sword—its absence as detrimental as its uncontrolled presence.


Fire has historically been a threat, something to prevent at all costs. This attitude became mainstream in the 1940’s with films like Bambi emphasizing the danger and destruction wildfire could bring to an area. In 1944, the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign began and it has since become one of our nation’s longest running public service advertising campaigns.


As Smokey famously said, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” But, you may not have noticed that sometime in the 2000s and 2010s Smokey’s message changed to, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires!” This subtle change means a world of difference across the USA and particularly, here in the SE USA.


Unfortunately, this resulted in decades of fire suppression in the US. When fire is excluded from ecosystems in which it was a normal disturbance, it can disrupt the habitat available to wildlife, change the dominant plant and tree species in an area, and even affect the way water moves through a system. And, in extreme cases, it can make the next fire that comes through even more dangerous due to an unnatural buildup of fuels (dead wood, overgrowth, vines, etc.).


PRESCRIBED FIRE

Prescribed burns, carefully managed by trained land managers, are instrumental in maintaining ecological balance, enhancing biodiversity, and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. These planned fires mimic natural fire cycles, essential for the rejuvenation of fire-adapted ecosystems like pine flatwoods, which historically experienced fires ignited by lightning. It’s important to note that many of our American Indian cultures also used prescribed fire to help renew the forests throughout North America.


We know through dendrochronological research (the study of tree rings) that specific ecosystems and species living within them are dependent on regular fire rotations (in other words, the average number of years between burns) to enhance their reproduction and suppress overgrowth of the ecosystem. For instance, many longleaf pine ecosystems have a natural fire rotation of 2-4 years but sand pine-scrub systems may have a much longer fire rotation, 10-60 years. The types of fire associated with these different cycles vary in intensity, season, and how species have adapted to survive and thrive in them.


FIRE DEPENDENT SPECIES IN FLORIDA

The dance between fire and nature paints a complex picture, where fire-dependent species like the Florida scrub-jay and the longleaf pine play pivotal roles. The Florida scrub-jay, exclusive to just a few of Florida’s unique scrub habitats, thrives in the open environments maintained by periodic fires. These necessary flames clear away dense vegetation, ensuring the scrub-jay has access to ample foraging grounds and nesting sites. Similarly, the longleaf pine, a symbol of Florida’s fire-prone ecosystems, relies on fire to clear the ground for its seeds to take root and grow, maintaining its dominance in the landscape.


These examples highlight the nuanced role of fire as both a guardian and a renewer of Florida’s natural heritage, promoting a landscape where both plant and animal life are intertwined with the cycle of fire. Recognizing and implementing controlled burns not only protects these fire-adapted communities but also embraces a broader understanding of fire’s integral role in sustaining the ecological diversity and health of Central Florida.


FLORIDA’S FIRE SEASON

Florida’s fire season is usually from mid-April through July and is marked by naturally ignited lightning fires across the state. Fire season, preceding the wetter months, often includes lower humidity and drier vegetation, conditions ripe for both natural and prescribed fires. And as you can imagine, fire season may start early or run late if drought conditions are also going on! It all depends on how much rain we’ve received that year.


You may see announcements from local land managers that there are prescribed fires going on. If so, you might like to know that prescribed fires are planned extensively and permitted through the Florida Forest Service. In their plans, they must make contingency plans in case the fire was to escape due to a change in conditions. Escaped prescribed fires are rare, but it is possible.


If you notice a “red flag warning” on your local weather app, this is an indication that conditions are ripe for a fire. Be extra careful with barbecues, fire-pits, pile burning, and avoid parking on tall dry grass if your car’s engine is hot from driving.


FIREWISE BEHAVIORS FOR RESIDENTS

Amid the natural occurrence of fires and the implementation of prescribed burns, residents play a crucial role in fire prevention and safety. The goal of defensible space is to create and maintain a safety zone around the home, which increases the likelihood that a home will survive a wildfire even in the absence of firefighters.


Adopting firewise landscaping, creating defensible spaces around properties, and understanding the ecological benefits of fire can significantly mitigate risks. These practices, inspired by nature’s own mechanisms like the gopher tortoise’s burrow serving as a natural firebreak, not only protect homes but also aid firefighting efforts.


Some tips you can adopt if you live in a rural wooded area:


• Clean your roof and gutter system of dead leaves, debris, pine needles and cones


• Remove or trim back all flammable materials such as mulch, flammable plants, wood piles, or other vegetation making a 5-foot wide buffer around your home


• Trim back any trees leaning over your roof


• Prune all trees within 30 feet of the home up to 6-10 feet above the ground


As stewards of our environment, it is important to support and understand the role of fire in maintaining the health of Florida’s ecosystems. Encouraging the use of prescribed burns and adopting firewise practices at the community level can foster a harmonious coexistence with this natural process. For further information and resources on fire management and safety, residents can contact me at scarnevale@ufl.edu OR 863-519-1041.


You can learn more about firewise landscaping from UF/IFAS Extension at: edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/fr076. Or, from Florida Forest Service at: fdacs.gov/Forest-Wildfire/ForCommunities/Firewise-USA.

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