Most people who are caught setting forest fires usually get arrested.
But last week, the National Association of State Foresters gave an award to a man who does exactly that.
Florida forester Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, received the association’s national 2015 Earl Peterson Current Achievement for Fire Protection Award for keeping the state’s forests healthy through a combination of fire prevention and prescribed burns.
Karels, outgoing president of NASF, said part of fire prevention is responsible prescribed burning. Small, controlled fires help remove dead vegetation that could fuel larger wildfires if left unchecked.
“Prescribed fire is probably our single most important land management tool in Florida,” he said.
Florida ecosystems need regular fire, Karels said. Many state plant and animal species can only thrive in environments with regular fire because burning quickly converts ground cover into fertilizer to release key nutrients back into the soil, stimulating new growth.
Like California, Florida’s climate makes it prone to fires. While Florida has had a rainy summer, he said the weather tends to be cyclical. Three or four years of very wet conditions will be followed by two or three years of very dry weather.
“It burns very intensely in Florida when conditions are right,” Karels said.
However, Florida leads the nation in fire management. Last year, the Florida Forest Service set a national record for the most prescribed burns ever done by one agency when it covered almost 247,000 acres. And Florida offers liability protection to encourage prescribed burning, a policy not all states have implemented.
“With experience, you can do it very safely and very effectively,” Karels said.
Karels received the award in part because of his role in implementing new safety procedures in firefighting. He introduced new safety standards after the 2011 deaths of two firefighters in Florida. Because of this experience, he was asked to review procedures in Arizona after the 2013 deaths of 19 firefighters in Yarnell.
“It was having to go into a really tough situation and try to make the best of it and learn from it,” Karels said.
Amanda Cooke, communications director for NASF, said the agency began its awards program in 1977.
The award ceremony is an annual event. However, the Earl Peterson award, which is coincidentally named after another Florida state forester, isn’t given out every year. While the NASF receives annual nominations in this category, it presents the award only when an individual has made significant impact on a national level.
“The power of recognizing outstanding programs to protect manifest forests is far-reaching and can impact all of our members,” Cooke said.
Chelsea Ealum, communications and public relations coordinator with the Florida Forest Service, said the agency is responsible for overseeing 37 state forests, which cover about 1.1 million acres. It also manages wildfire protection and prevention throughout the entire state for both public and private lands.
Ealum said the award is well-deserved.
In an average year, the agency issues 121,000 prescribed burning authorizations for public and private lands. It employs 1,600 prescribed burn managers who are responsible for 2.3 million acres.
“We’re very, very proud of our prescribed fire program here in Florida,” Ealum said.