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Intentional Fires Stimulate Environmental Growth In Alachua County

A Florida Forest Service wild land firefighter conducts a prescribed burn to reduce wildfire risks in the Okeechobee district.
A Florida Forest Service wild land firefighter conducts a prescribed burn to reduce wildfire risks in the Okeechobee district.

Sam LeNeave sets fires. But that’s a good thing.

LeNeave, manager of the Suwannee Forestry Center, has set prescribed fires on thousands of acres of land for the past 24 years. He is one of hundreds of prescribed fire specialists approved by the Florida Forest Serviceto conduct burns.

Planned fires help cycle nutrients and reduce potential fuel for unplanned forest fires, said John Saddler, a prescribed burn manager with the Florida Forest Service. He said Florida tends to have a lot of unplanned fires, partly because of frequent lightning. Those fires have created an ecosystem that depends on regular burns to thrive. That’s where forest service workers step in.

Burners in Florida have been especially busy this year with two forests Welaka State Forest andEtoniah Creek State Forest expected to exceed their burn goals.

John Masters, a forester with Welaka State Forest in Putnam County, said Welaka State has been able to burn above-target goals because of prime weather conditions. This year's wet weather has made it possible to burn areas that may have been too dry in previous years.

He said the actual acreage burned depends on the weather, drought conditions, forest-structural characteristics and the successes or failures of previous burn efforts

Scott Crosby, a forestry supervisor with the Florida Forest Service, said since December the service has burned 3,137 acres in Etoniah Creek State Forest, west of Palatka. The annual prescribed-burning goal for that forest is 3,380 acres.

"So far, we are well on our way to meeting this goal and most likely will exceed it," Crosby said. Etoniah Creek was also the site of the most recent prescribed burn; on Feb. 14, 1,288 acres were set ablaze.

Crosby said he plans to burn approximately 1,350 acres in Etoniah Creek from March through May, when plants begin growing after the winter.

Gallberries, palmettos, leaves and shrubs get incinerated in a prescribed burn, and become fuel. After a prescribed burning, the plant remains return nutrients back into the soil easier, said Bill Giuliano, extension specialist with the UF Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

Florida’s wildfire season is year-round, but more wildfires happen from mid-to-late spring and early summer, said Chelsea Ealum, Florida Forest Service spokeswoman. She said prescribed fires are ideal, because they can be controlled and the service can set up firebreaks, which prevent the planned fire – and any unplanned ones -- from spreading too far.

“Even if a fire goes through there later,” she said, “it won’t be as large and difficult to control.”

Nathalie is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.