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Controlled burns in Florida now make out-of-control blazes less likely later

Picture of a wildfire
Chris Richards
Big Cypress National Presere
Wildland firefighters from four agencies work throughout the night setting backfires to burn away dry vegetation the 10,55-acres Sandy Wildfire may otherwise find useful Wednesday, May 10, 2023 when the sun comes up and temperatures rise and humidity falls

Little fires are being set in the Everglades and surrounding forests this month, in part so that when it gets so dry and so hot in the spring that even shadows are looking for shade, there will be less of a chance of a major wildfire.

This time of year, when there is still some moisture in the backwoods, yet it hasn’t been raining every day, conditions are perfect for professional firefighters to light a “controlled” or “prescribed” fire. And that prescription results in a woodsy fire smell and wildfire smoke - but not the kind to be worried about.

 Dry Prairie
Bayles, Tom
All photos Florida State Parks
Dry Prairie

“The burns follow a written prescription which outlines the defined fire treatment area, goals of the burn, specific weather conditions that are required, the tactics staff will use, and the resources that are required to conduct the burn,” said Chris Reed, a land manager with the South Florida Water Management District. “Additionally, a smoke management map is prepared to identify smoke-sensitive areas, which are places where smoke from prescribed fires is intolerable, like schools and hospitals.”

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Those smaller blazes lit on purpose by specially trained firefighters are to clear out exotics and dead vegetation to keep the forest healthy. In many cases, wildfire is necessary for certain trees and shrubs to reproduce.

Naturally occurring fires caused by lightning once played a major role in forming and maintaining much of Florida’s pine lands, sandhills, scrub areas, prairies, and wetlands.

For a while, the thought was to put out every wildfire the second it starts to save the ever-growing number of homes and businesses throughout the state, but that just allowed woody fuels to build up so that the next fire in that same spot burned hotter and for longer than it otherwise would have.


Now, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Service uses prescribed fire techniques to improve and maintain habitats for deer, quail, turkey, and many other wildlife species.

Fire’s influence on Florida’s landscape is so vital to the survival of numerous plants and wildlife species that prescribed burning is one of the FWC’s most extensively applied habitat management practices.

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Some of Florida’s rare, fire-adapted plants and animals that cannot thrive without fire include the red-cockaded woodpecker, fox squirrel, gopher tortoise, indigo snake, and Florida scrub-jay.

FWC firefighters even set a controlled burn in Lake Okeechobee.

The fire was set on the north side of Lake Okeechobee to clear out more than 200 acres of cattails previously treated with herbicides and some dead vegetation, both of which had piled up in the area.

Early this summer the Big Cypress National Preserve shut down all recreational uses including off-road vehicles, hiking, camping, hunting, and commercial activities for a series of prescribed fires.

“A prescribed fire is one of Big Cypress’s best tools to help create a mosaic of diverse habitats, manage for our endangered species, and reduce the threat of a destructive wildfire,” a statement issued by the park said. “Prescribed fire is a carefully planned fire that uses fire science and specific environmental conditions to meet management goals for the preserve.”

Most state environmental agencies in charge of public lands, and federal branches of national environmental agencies such as the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S.D.A. manage its lands in Florida, at least in part, with controlled burns.

Burn tech

Native Americans perfected the use of fire in the woods over thousands of years to rejuvenate the land for farming and hunting while clearing acreage.

Then, about 100 years ago, controlled burns were set by whichever farmer got their first with a kitchen match handy. Usually, it was the one on a horse.

After far too many controlled burns escaped and became full-fledged wildfires, it became clear the practice of torching the woods must become the art of prescribed fire.


Led by the Florida Forest Service, already certified wildland firefighters who want to become controlled burn masters attend additional training to learn the precise degrees of wind, humidity, fuel type, rain chance, and a slew of other meteorological concerns that must be in place before the controlled burn can be lit – and when conditions are wrong for one.

In addition, many wildland firefighters also specially trained for controlled burns are stationed around the area with firefighting equipment ready to put out any spot fire started by embers blown out of the boundaries by a gust of wind, or the updrafts caused by the heat of the blaze.

Even lighting the controlled burn has advanced greatly from a cowboy throwing a lit Diamond Match into the dry brush.

A drip torch does exactly what it sounds like it does: as a firefighter moves along the line to be lit he or she turns upside-down a metal container of a mix of fuels that looks like a watering can, but instead drops dollops of fire to the ground. If lucky, the firefighters are riding along in an ATV because it gets hot and that first “drip line” is often a long one.

Sometimes, firefighters have to use a flamethrower of sorts, mounted on an ATV, truck, swamp buggy, or airboat to ignite a controlled burn.

There are even situations when, to start a controlled burn or help stop an out-of-control wildfire, helicopters laden with what sort of look like hollow golf balls filled with a chemical mixture that's shot out of the aircraft by a launcher of sorts. When it hits the ground it very gently goes ablaze, melts, and coats the underbrush with a sticky goo that’s on fire.

Florida’s a model
Wildfires only became a problem when people began building homes in woodsy subdivisions. That, and when the policy was to put out every wildland blaze as fast as possible, not knowing what didn't burn then would build up and create a much larger wildfire someday.

The Sunshine State’s prescribed burn program has gained such a reputation for clearing out forests for healthy regrowth without (usually) losing control of the fire that wildfire-ravaged states like California have been turning the Florida fire managers for advice.

 Scrubby flatwood
Scrubby flatwood

California and Florida face significant wildfire threats, albeit under different conditions.

California battles wildfires frequently due to its Mediterranean climate, Santa Ana winds, and dry summers. Florida, with its subtropical climate, faces wildfires particularly during its dry season and due to factors like lightning.

 Of course, wildfires are not just a problem in two states. As climate change heats up the planet, dries out some forests, and changes some rain patterns to drop less water, President Joe Biden asked a committee to look into how to better fight the massive wildfires that have been popping up with increasing regularity.

“The risk of catastrophic wildfires is growing at alarming rates in the West and the South,” wrote the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in “Modernizing Wildland Firefighting to Protect Our Firefighters” turned into Biden earlier this year. “The linchpin of our country’s effort to combat wildfires is a dedicated corps of tens of thousands of state and federal wildland firefighters, who risk their lives to defend over 1.5 billion acres of fire-prone land in the United States.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

Copyright 2023 WGCU.

Tom Bayles
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