Ehlers: Why controlled burns?

Published: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

One of the most important forest management and wildfire prevention tools used by the Florida Division of Forestry is prescribed, or controlled, burning.

Our late summer and early fall precipitation amounts have provided all of us with a much overdue respite to our dry land and forest conditions, and we at the Wacassasa Forestry Center (comprised of Alachua, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion and Putnam counties) will begin our prescribed burn program for the winter months. We want to help residents better understand the why and how of the prescribed burn program and the disciplines we put in place to ensure the safety of both residents and wildlife.

Prescribed fire is used to restore and maintain fire-dependent ecosystems, enhance forest health, improve wildlife habitat, and prevent wildfire by reducing hazardous fuels.

It is a closely controlled burning of vegetation based on a prescription that takes into consideration fuel type, fuel moisture, relative humidity, air temperature, wind speed, wind direction and other atmospheric conditions to ensure a safe and successful burn that minimizes any adverse impact on people.

In addition to meeting the above mentioned weather conditions, additional criteria include: acquiring daily authorization by the local Division of Forestry, establishing fire breaks around the burn area and ensuring that sufficient personnel and fire suppression equipment are on site for controlling the fire. The fire must be controlled within the boundary of the authorized area and responsible persons must remain at the burn site to contain the fire.

Daytime controlled-burn operations commence after 9 a.m. with fire spread contained within one hour after sunset. Night controlled burn operations are occasionally conducted to take advantage of higher relative humidity and light wind conditions. They can be conducted from one hour before sunset until 9 a.m.

Public concerns regarding smoke created by prescribed fire are a priority for the division. Wind direction predictions are tested before burning to ensure that the fire will not cause adverse air quality intrusions over urban areas or create visibility problems on roads.

Because of Florida's history of lightning fires, our natural ecosystems are adapted to fire and depend on periodic fire to remain healthy. Research shows that prescribed fire is a sound and responsible way to protect people and their homes and to ensure the ecological health of fire-affected landscapes. Populations of many animal species, including bobwhite quail, turkey, scrub jay, Florida black bear, the gopher tortoise and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, increase in numbers after a regimented prescribed burn campaign because of the resulting improved habitat.

Most wild animals migrate to safety during the relatively slow-moving prescribed fires. Some animals take refuge by moving to unburned or previously burned areas. Small animals seek shelter under logs, in old trees, and in burrows like those of the gopher tortoise.

We coordinate with local, county or city fire agencies before every burn to ensure they are aware of the burn location. If there is the potential of smoke creating driving restrictions, we post smoke warning signs on the potentially affected road. We also remain sensitive to the potential of smoke irritation should Mother Nature decide to challenge us with a wind direction change.

We must work together to forge long-term solutions as Florida's communities expand with increasing numbers bordering wildland regions. We follow best practice approaches to minimizing the risk of wildland fires to our communities and maintaining the health of our state forests and wildlife. When considering the devastating impact of uncontrolled wildfires, prescribed burning is a proven long-term solution to protecting our natural resources and Florida's residents.

Ludie Ehlers is a wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Division of Forestry.

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