“Remember...only YOU can prevent forest fires,” read Smokey Bear’s famous first catchphrase.
A familiar line, yet what does it really mean? Must all fires be stopped? Is there not a flicker of good a flame can have for a forest?
Greg Seamon, Fire Training Specialist for Tall Timbers and member of the North Florida Prescribed Fire Council steering committee said fire is “as natural as rain or sunshine and just as important for most of our natural plant communities in the state.” For thousands of years the pine forests of the southeastern United States relied on wildfires to keep the forests and everything in them healthy.
Although a fire seems destructive, it actually has many benefits. The heat of a fire is sometimes the only trigger for pine cones to release seeds. Other plants require a process called “scarification” to grow. Fires scarifies seeds by removing a protective coat around them and prompting them to germinate. Still there are yet other flora that require a disturbance (like fire) to reproduce. The ash from the flames not only brings needed nutrients to the soil, but it also leaves - plant pun intended - space on the ground for dormant plants to develop.
One example is milkweed, the host plant for the monarch butterfly. While Florida boasts over 20 native species of milkweed, many are becoming increasingly elusive due to a lack fire disturbance which would have normally kept open areas that the plant enjoys. Native milkweed species go underground during the winter, but if the correct conditions are not present, the plants may stay dormant for years. This loss contributes to the population decline of the monarch butterfly as it is unable to reproduce without milkweeds on which to lay its eggs. Animals depend on plants; plants depend on fire. Seems simple enough. Now enter the human component.
While wildfires kept up a natural cycle in the absence of people, present-day civilization has led to better management of fire introduction into the landscape: prescribed fire. Just the way that a doctor prescribes medication for cold or infection, a burn boss will write a prescription for a forest. Here are the patient’s symptoms: encroaching hardwoods, overgrown shrubs, and maybe even some invasive grasses. To ensure safety for the burn crew and the public, the burn boss - the prescriber - may require up to a year to plan accordingly. A prescription is written in terms of fire, what objectives are hoped to be met with the fire, and what weather is needed to make sure everything is accomplished safely. Greg describes it best, “Prescribed fire is a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health, and reduce wildfire risk.”
Last month, the burn crew at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve and local partners were able to conduct the last “growing season” prescribed burns of the season. Prescribed burns that are conducted during the hot months are considered growing season burns, and they occur during the months when lightning historically started wildfires. Dormant season burning occurs during the winter months.
Safety always comes first, so after a thorough prescription was written and a day of suitable weather was chosen, the crew made final preparations. This included re-checking rain gauges and soil moisture to make sure it was wet enough for a fire to be well managed. The roads around the burn area were mowed and disked to ensure the fire stayed in its zone. Once that was set, staff prepared themselves and the zone by filling all water tanks, fueling up all engines, and placing signs at preserve entrances warning the public of the prescribed fire. The morning of the burns began with a briefing explaining the burn plan, where all crew members will be, and details about the weather. After that, burn time.
“Crew Boss to Burn Boss.”
The walkie buzzed, “This is Burn Boss.”
“Test fire is on the ground and looking good! We have nice backing flames and if you’re alright with it, we are going to move forward with the prescribed burn.”
The fire crept along the ground opposite the wind direction to keep the flames low. Starting with the easy-catching wire grass and growing high enough only to engulf oil-filled palmettos, the flames neatly made their way through these fire-adapted plants while barely charring pine bark. Even with a midday wind shift courtesy of the sea breeze, crew boss Allix North made quick thinking of the situation. All her team members were ready with hoses on the fire’s edge, and once secured, she kept all crew members on rotation and did not exhaust a single one. Burn boss Dylan Shoemaker, the manager of the Buffer Preserve, deemed both burns successes. Prescription objectives were met, communication between the crew was impeccable, and everyone stayed safe.
After careful monitoring for smoke and hotspots, the Buffer Preserve opened for visitors a few days after the fire. With the passing of only two days, wire grass completely resprouted and box turtles roamed the ashen land looking for grasshopper barbeque. A week later, new palmetto fronds formed on burnt plants. Nature is taking well to its medication.