The Florida Forest Service lit fires near Dignity Village, a campsite for homeless people, on Wednesday as part of a prescribed burn.
But the residents didn’t see the fires as a threat. Instead, they welcomed the warmth.
“Everyone started watching like it was a show,” said a Dignity Village resident who goes by the name Trey. “The heat is kind of radiating through the tents so there’s no complaints from my side about the controlled burn.”
The forest service conducted the burn around 11 a.m. on Newnans Lake State Forest in northeast Gainesville, located off NE 39th Ave., on a 27-acre plot of land adjacent to Dignity Village. When the Florida Forest Service does a controlled burn, it must not only consider the direction of the fire, but the direction of the smoke as well.
For the rangers, this means planning the controlled burns around areas that are smoke sensitive – such as Dignity Village.
The controlled fire started when rangers lit a test fire using drip torches in the southeast corner of the land and continued to make burn lines in a northeastern direction. The lines of fire burned towards each other until the gaps were closed, consuming undergrowth and burning vines, leaves and pines.
Wednesday’s burning was the first prescribed wooded burn on the land since its grand opening as a state park last spring. A smaller pasture burn had been preformed last year. Prescribed burnings are used as a tool to clear excessive undergrowth that can fuel wildfires. New plant growth is supported by the more accessible sunlight after the burn.
Timber production will be one of the uses of the land, in addition to possible hiking, birding and horse riding trails, said Ludie Bond, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service.
“Usually the majority of our prescribed burning is done during the winter seasons because the trees are dormant then and its safer for us to put fire on the ground: you have less tree mortality, less scorching of the canopies of the trees,” Bond said.
According to a Florida Forest Service document, the airport is the most smoke-sensitive area nearby and if at anytime the winds shifted south, the burn would have to be aborted. Also, if winds shifted east to Waldo Road, the burn would have to be aborted.
Special considerations had to be taken to ensure smoke, ash and embers would not drift north into Dignity Village, where some tents were set up within 200 feet of the designated burn area.
Rangers notified members of Dignity Park and other locals prior to the burning to insure residents could make necessary preparations. Residents at Dignity Park were given handouts and talked amongst each other about the upcoming burning. Although smoke and ash never reached them, residents were able to see fire and smoke from their tents.
On Monday, rangers dug a plow line that would act as a buffer zone between the burn area and the surrounding land. The plow line, approximately 10 feet wide, would prevent fire and embers from spreading, although rangers monitored the surroundings in the case that fire spread beyond the designated area.
“We try to catch it real fast if we do get a spot over and keep moving along – not too fast, you have to know your right pace,” said Jamie Rittenhouse, Alachua County forest area supervisor. “You have to adjust to your weather conditions.”
Using weather reports from the National Weather Center, rangers planned the burn for today based on preferred conditions.
Although larger trees survive the procedure, some damaged and smaller trees burned thoroughly and will have to be evaluated to determine if they must be felled. In the following days, rangers will ‘mop’ the area by dousing trees and ash with water and raking the ground to prevent dormant embers from accidently starting other fires, Bond said.
Normally, burning procedures like the one today only need to be performed once every 3-5 years unless rangers determine otherwise.
“Prescribed fires are a very handful tool – one of our most useful tools,” Rittenhouse said. “It’s a little bit of a nuisance right now but in the long run it’s a very great benefit to the forest.”