There are bad fires – however, prescribed fire is not one of them. The value of prescribed fires as one of the most versatile and cost effective tools for land managers has been documented numerous times. Prescribed fire is used to reduce hazardous fuel buildups; thus, providing increased protection to people, their homes and the forest.
Throughout the state of Florida records are being set in number of acres being burned using prescribed fire. The St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve is setting records in that area also. Just since mid-February the Preserve has used prescribed burns on 1490 acres of land. “Prescribed fire is a valuable tool used at the Buffer Preserve”, says Dylan Shoemaker. “When the weather is hotter than normal and fuel loads have built up, a lightning strike could devastate an area in the Preserve. We have neighbors whose property adjoin the Preserve’s and the issue of Wildland – Urban Interface becomes an important one. When planning a prescribed burn next to our neighbor’s property extra caution is taken to ensure the safety of structures on their land.”
The wildland-urban interface is the zone where increased human influence and land-use conversion has created changes which affect natural areas and natural resource management.
The 5, 019 acres the Preserve owns is divided into zones and placed on a rotation schedule and burned about every two, three or four-years. Why does the Buffer Preserve do this? Well, there is more than one reason. One important reason is the occurrence of fire-dependent habitats of rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and animals. Many of these species cannot survive without proper, frequent and ongoing fire management. The gopher tortoise, which has been sighted at the Preserve and many other species are completely dependent on frequent fire. Without periodic fires, species such as the Florida scrub-jay, Sherman’s fox squirrel, red-cockaded woodpecker, white-top pitcher plant, and four-petal pawpaw would disappear forever. A springtime controlled fire in the Preserve even allowed five rare plants that had never been documented in the area to bloom in summer. The 26 acres these rare plants were found in had no history of ever having been burned with prescribed fire before therefore pointing out the importance of a regiment of burning.
Prescribed burns reduce fuel such as underbrush and deadfall, that builds up in the Preserve. Reducing the fuel load greatly reduces the chance of a wildfire intensifying and becoming extremely destructive. Using prescribed burns is important for instance, in the event of a lightning strike, fires are more easily managed to protect lives and property.
There are other benefits of prescribed fire including disease control in young pines, improving habitat for wildlife, land management, preservation of endangered plant and animal species and the maintenance of fire dependent ecosystems.
So, who can conduct a prescribed burn? Only a specially trained staff is entrusted to conduct a burn. Detailed plans are submitted and approved before a burn can actually take place. Staff involved in prescribed burns spend hours in the classroom, many hours as trainees, and undergo vigorous pack tests annually. One must hike 2 miles with a 25-pound pack strapped to your back which is no easy task. The tricky part is that it must be completed in less than 30 minutes. Anyone who wants to be able to apply prescribed fire or work on a burn team must complete this grueling endurance challenge.
There is specialized equipment and tools, including a fire engine, to help control the fire and manage fire breaks. The Florida Forest Service is on hand with a bulldozer which will be used to create a fire break if necessary. All necessary precautions have been addressed before the fire is started.
“Weather”, says Buffer Preserve Manager Dylan Shoemaker, “is the biggest concern, after obtaining certified burners and a permit. Weather on the coast of Florida changes from season to season, day to day, and hour to hour. Our staff is constantly monitoring the weather, from the office watching weather reports to the burners in the field checking reports constantly. There is never an occasion that a prescribed burn would be conducted without all factors being perfect.” Occasionally the wind might appear to be too strong when in actuality it helps to lift smoke and take it up and away from people and houses. A recent fire at the Preserve was such an example. There appeared to be high winds which were not conducive to burning however, on checking St. Joseph Peninsula during the burn, it was smoke free due to smoke over the bay being lifted before reaching the peninsula.
Recently the Preserve has had the opportunity to interact with and help train hopeful burners from around the world in conjunction with the Prescribed Fire Training Center in Tallahassee. Trainees from as far away as Australia have participated in prescribed burning at the Preserve. In 2017, the Preserve has had the opportunity to host two groups of all female trainees. These ladies have it all together. To say that they are on the ball is an understatement. They are part of the Women’s Leadership Module from the Prescribed Fire Training Center. For one burn, there were 8 women and for the second rotation there were 9 women involved in the burn from the PFTC. Allix North, Environmental Specialist I and staff Ecologist, had this to say about the experience, “Working with PFTC Women’s Leadership Module personnel provides an awesome opportunity for learning and growth for females in fire management.”
Just this week, both Dylan and Allix were sporting shirts from the PFTC that read – Every Day is a Burn Day! With the help and support of the Florida Forest Service, the State Parks in our area, and the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department plus the 16 Fire personnel from the PFTC and staff of the Buffer Preserve, truly, (almost) every day can be a burn day!