The bumper sticker said, “More Prescribed burns mean less Wildfires” or something very similar. That bumper sticker was proudly displayed in the Office in Building A at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve on a bulletin board. That bulletin board is probably stored in a pod on site at the Preserve. That office and the other offices are closed for repairs. There are still no phones, no internet, no rooms for research students, and no open Visitor Center.

What is happening at the Preserve is restoration of buildings, erecting new decks after removal of the twisted and mangled ones, and lots of clean-up from staff and volunteers. Another important aspect of the land management which is now as important as ever before, is planning for prescribed burning.

This burn season will have its challenges as there is still tons of debris scattered throughout the 5,000+ acres of preserve land. Predictions regarding wildfires is ominous due to post-Michael conditions. In our neighboring county a wildfire burned many acres and engaged many resource personnel to contain it. It is imperative that areas which can be included in the prescribed burn zones be included and burned.

Staff from the Buffer Preserve continue training to prepare for the burns. New employees begin training and learning about burning as quickly as possible after their orientation at the preserve. Even the seasoned burners are always updating and learning all they can to help with the burns.

Not only does the Buffer Preserve staff burn their 5,000-plus acres, they burn for the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve in Eastpoint. With recent wildfires in Eastpoint and on St. George Island the prescribed burns gain even more importance. Homes saved during a wildfire are those with minimal “fuels” locate close to the perimeter of the home.

Buffer Preserve Manager, Dylan Shoemaker, is the Burn Boss and is responsible for obtaining all permits and it is he who plans which zones will be burned at a specific time. He assigns the crew stations and jobs to be handled. Appointed personnel then check in with him before, during, and after the burn.

Working together is a common theme for prescribed burners. Everyone watches out for everyone else. There’s no time for territorial issues when burning because as they like to say – “it only takes one spark to ignite an out-of-control wildfire.”

The crew of the Buffer Preserve and the Research Reserve (ANERR) are joined by various partners from other agencies. There are state requirements for the number of crew members who must be present for a prescribed burn to take place. State parks in our area send personnel to assist along with crews and machinery from the Florida Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Tyndall AFB, and others. Training for those new to prescribed burning is offered at almost every burn. Newbies are paired with old-timers to learn what’s important at a burn. There have been people from around the world training at the Buffer Preserve.

Post Michael trees are very vulnerable and subject to igniting and destroying vast acres in the Panhandle. Shoemaker and his burn team and partners are aware of the utmost importance of prescribed burning. Due to destruction from Michael there are no scheduled TRAM Tours, no Bay Day being planned, and the Visitor Center is closed.

It will take a while to return to normal however the Preserve will be back stronger than ever. Watch for notices of re-opening and offers of tours and programs.