Prescribed fire is a land management tool used on many public lands to improve wildlife habitat, enhance forest health and prevent wildfires. Because lightning does not always strike at our convenience, land managers have learned to use and control its consequences—fire.
Any prescription for fire takes into consideration fuel type, fuel moisture, relative humidity, air temperature, wind speed and wind direction. Prescribed fires are planned, set and extinguished by trained professionals under permits issued by the Florida Department of Forestry. Last year, more than 400 prescribed burns benefited nearly 78,000 acres in state parks, preserves and research reserves.
Fire has been recently prescribed to re-establish shorebird nesting habitat on Keewaydin Island in South Florida and on the old St. George Causeway in the panhandle. Tall grasses had spread from the middle of the islands toward the shore, where terns nest. Fire keeps the grasses in check to deter nest predators and to clear nesting area for shorebirds.
Many of Florida’s natural systems, such as flatwoods, pine sandhills and sand pine/scrub oak communities, depend on fire to remain healthy. In Florida’s state parks and preserves, fire-dependent systems shelter many threatened and endangered plant and animal species, including the black bear, scrub jay, indigo snake, gopher tortoise and scrub holly. Fire is essential to the health of systems adapted to periodic fire. For example, a springtime controlled fire in the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve allowed five rare plants that had never been documented in the area to bloom in summer.
Prescribed burns also reduce fuel – underbrush and deadfall – that builds up on forest floors. If fuels are not reduced periodically, wildfires can intensify and become destructive. Prescribed burns are conducted so that when lightning does strike, fires are more easily extinguished to protect lives and property.
Additional benefits of prescribed fires include:
- Stimulating new plant growth, which is also additional food for wildlife.
- Reducing scrub vegetation height to a level suitable for small wildlife.
- Many species use ash as a mineral source.
- Exposing the mineral soil of the forest floor and controlling competing vegetation, which allows seedlings to become established.
- Controlling insects and diseases that affect pine trees.
- Fire recycles nutrients through the ecosystem.