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Wildland firefighters use small fires to avoid big ones; help environment

Wildfire prescribed burn cogon grass.jpg
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Firefighters in South Florida in coming months will be using "prescribed burns," which are smaller fires lit to help avoid bigger ones, to rid the forest of the fuel that feeds wildfires, or to destroy invasive species like this cogon grass that was burned away by state wildland managers

If you see a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky this time of year in Florida, there is a good chance it’s an under-control wildland burn that has little chance of spreading as opposed to a raging wildfire heading your way.

Wildland management agencies take advantage of the early part of the dry season in Florida to purposely burn smaller tracts of land. Called “prescribed burns,” the fires are lit and managed by trained woodland firefighters to help manage the woods as well as avoid larger, out-of-control wildfires later on.

Prescribed fires, also called controlled burns, restore overall environmental health to ecosystems that rely on the burn-and-regrow cycle to thrive. Fire managers first have to write out a follow a safety plan, or prescription, for each burn. The humidity has to be above a certain level, the winds below a certain speed, and the temperature just right. Firefighters, tractors, and water trucks are on-scene throughout the process.

“A prescribed fire helps with the natural cycle that fire-dependent plants and animals need,” said Patrick M. Mahoney, a Florida Forest Service wildfire mitigation specialist in the Myakka River District, which includes Charlotte, Desoto, Hardee, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. “It also helps remove exotic and invasive species.”

Mahoney said those who are in charge of controlled burns are firefighters who have gone through specialized training and know exactly how to gauge all the environmental factors in place and decide whether a prescribed burn is a good idea at that time.

Controlled burns clear the land of underbrush and dead vegetation, which allows new plants to flourish, and can even be designed to result in a particular mix of grasses and shrubs for the benefit of one type of plant or animal, or for the entire population of the forest. The fires are also lit to create food and habitat for animals, keep clear access roads that run deep in the woods, and for research efforts.

Fire managers most often choose the period from January through March as opposed to later in the spring when the woods usually become so dry that the risk of the controlled fire becoming uncontrolled is too great. They also keep the size of the fires relatively small, usually to under a few hundred acres.

The Florida Forest Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the South Florida Water Management District, among others, each burn tens of thousands of acres of South Florida woodland per year in controlled fires. More than 60,000 acres is burned this way every year in the Big Cyprus National Preserve alone.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, accelerating change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.