Ash-filled air and smoke-filled skies are more common in Florida than one might think. Prescribed fire is used year-round to preserve some of our state’s unique ecosystems.
Prescribed fire is the planned and controlled application of fire by a team of certified experts. It is done to restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire.
Many of Florida’s landscapes depend on fires to survive. Longleaf pines, turkey-oak sandhill, and Rockland Pine Forests are all Florida ecosystems that are fire-dependent.
Prescribed fire accomplishes a number of land management purposes. It eliminates decayed plant matter that can fuel wildfires, improves accessibility to the landscape and helps recycle nutrients back into the soil, promoting new growth.
“Fire is part of the ecosystem itself,” said Rick Dolan, Waccasassa Forestry Center Manager. “It’s a necessary tool in Florida landscapes that’s been used for hundreds of years.”
All across the United States, Indigenous populations have used fire as a means of promoting new growth and self-protection. In Florida, the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes still use prescribed fire as a means of land management.
According to Ludie Bond, a wildfire mitigation specialist and public information officer at the Florida Forest Service, a common misconception about prescribed fires revolves around the amount of care taken when conducting a burn.
“It’s all very methodical,” Bond said. “It’s a prescription. Burn blocks are chosen weeks in advance, everything’s meticulously planned and one wrong shift in the wind could mean we call the whole operation off and wait for better weather. We’re very careful.”
The Florida Forest Service issues thousands of burn authorizations a year, where over 2 million acres of Florida land see fire. The fires can be conducted anywhere from state parks to private properties, all with the help and supervision of certified prescribed burn managers.
State, federal, nonprofit organizations and even individual landowners all work together to administer prescribed fires.
Ivor Kincaide, land stewardship director at the nonprofit Alachua Conservation Trust, said, “It’s also important to note that so many endangered and vulnerable species rely on these fire-dependent ecosystems in Florida. The red-cockaded woodpecker, the gopher tortoise, the indigo snake… they’re fire-dependent, too.”
Without fires, habitats can become too overgrown for these species to properly forage.
In the past, Florida saw fires through lightning strikes or Indigenous populations. But after such Traditional Ecological Knowledge was lost and fire suppression campaigns took place, many fire-dependent ecosystems couldn’t fully flourish.
Even today, burn managers must meticulously plan, strike during the perfect weather conditions and properly inform the public when conducting these burns. This makes the administration and education of prescribed fires an intricate affair. But the public perception of fire is getting better.
“We’re hoping for a universal understanding of how important these fires are,” Kincaide said. “After all, without fire, many Florida ecosystems simply wouldn’t exist.”