August 2002 Newsletter Articles
Prescribed Burning in Central Florida Today
Prescribed burning has been a part of land management in Central Florida for hundreds of years. There is documentation by early European travelers to Florida that Native Americans made use of intentionally set fire to maintain their existence. For four generations cattlemen have routinely burned their rangelands to provide forage.
The vegetation of Central Florida is dependent on periodic fire for diversity and vitality. Central Florida receives more lightning strikes than any other part of the North American Continent. Probably 80% of the lightning activity occurs during May and June. Prior to settlement, itís reasonable to think that during these months there were numerous lightning caused small fires across our landscape that burned till they ran out of fuels or were rained out. As a result, our uplands were probably dominated by old growth longleaf and slash pine with a grass understory and very little palmetto.
Natural fire is no longer the dominant force it once was in maintaining biological communities. More often than not, uncontrolled fires are threats that are rightfully suppressed.
Today our landscape contains many parcels that are wildly overgrown. Much of this vegetation is particularly volatile because of the waxy surfaces which aid in controlling evapotranspiration. When these parcels adjoin developments or roadways, they can pose a serious wildfire threat to the safety of local folks and highway travelers. As each year passes more vegetation accumulates which compounds the fuel level. This problem is made even worse by the fact that water levels in our swamp systems have been dropping for over ten years; there is in effect, an ecological change underway regarding groundcover in much of our swamp areas.
Homes and other improvements in close proximity to these heavily fueled wildland areas complicates the ability to conduct safe prescribed burns. State and county initiatives to purchase land to protect it from future development have resulted in over a million acres being managed by public agencies. By 2010 the total acreage will likely be 2 million. Given the rate of urbanization and the fact that so many of us want to move to the countryside, it is becoming more difficult to conduct the needed prescribed burns to reduce wildfire hazards and optimize biological integrity.
Prescribed fire is the best tool to maintain biological diversity and reduce the wildfire threat in our communities. However, the use of prescribed fire carries with it a lot of risk. Complaints over smoke and ash are common. The Sierra Grande fire in New Mexico in 2000 brought national attention to the consequences of an escaped prescribed fire. Communities were evacuated and many homes were destroyed. Escaped prescribed fires have also caused notable problems here in Florida.
Maintaining a viable prescribed fire program is contingent on strong public support and aggressive fuels/vegetation management.
Public support, based on a well informed public, that recognizes the fire dependency of our local vegetation and accepts the fact that when you build in a fire prone area there must be some type of treatment to keep vegetation at manageable levels. The treatment can be prescribed fire, when it can be done safely, or some type of mechanical means.
Aggressive fuels management means we have to find additional and more effective ways of dealing with the vegetation that can fuel wildfires. Prescribed fire works well but there are too many limitations on its use. Mowing, disking, and chopping are all helpful in controlling fire threat. I suspect that timber harvesting and cattle grazing can be effective in some circumstances though Iím sure there would be some resistance from those who have not recently witnessed a serious urban interface fire. Wildfire will make no distinction between vegetation and homes, they are both fuels. Wildfire in residential areas can be horrific.
Today the public has a much better understanding of the value of prescribed burning than they did ten years ago. Scientific evidence produces more data every year on the benefits of managed fire and the consequences of fire exclusion. Every county in the state has now adopted resolutions in support of prescribed burning.
Over the past 15 years there have been significant improvements in the tools that help us use prescribed fire wisely.
- The Interagency 40 hour Prescribed Fire Course - 150-200 people complete this course each year in Florida.
- The Prescribed Fire In The Wildland Urban Interface training course.
- Legislation in the form of the Certified Burner Act, which protects burners from liability from fire escape except in case of gross negligence. The burner must comply with certain conditions considered necessary for safe burning.
- DOF Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Teams. These teams were funded by the legislature following the serious 1998 Florida wildfire season, to help reduce the risk of fire hazard in communities considered at risk.
- FIREWISE Program; a national program to help residents reduce their vulnerability to the threat of wildfires. pictures, more information
The right side of the road was burned in June 97 (left side not burned); the photo was taken in Oct. 97 and shows in cutthroat grass a heavy seed crop caused by the burn.
The challenges that we face in the coming five years are:
- Continue efforts to educate people on wildfire threat. For those who would build their homes in areas subject to wildfire threat, provide them with tactics that they can employ to mitigate their own problems; work to influence building codes and development regulations to require wildfire mitigation plans for developments.
- Find more ways of managing the vegetation that causes out-of-control wildfires.
- Increase the number of competent prescribed burners.
Prescribed fire plays an important role in Florida by maintaining biological integrity and reducing the risk of dangerous wildfires. Itís important for all of us who realize this, to support and promote the use of responsible prescribed fire management.
...Mark Hebb, Forestry District Manager