Role of wildfires on ecosystem stressed at Paynes Prairie
Published: Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 10:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 10:16 p.m.
To one side of the trailer, there is a range of short, stout grasses and vegetation, including vibrant, yellow flat-topped goldenrods.
To the other side, sitting in stark contrast, are fast-growing tall grasses, mostly broom sedge and dog fennel, amid sweet gum trees.
This is the result of prescribed burning. On the one side, some of the overgrowth caused by suppressive and dominant vegetation was removed in order to foster the Paynes Prairie basin's natural, diverse wildlife.
The other side serves as an example of what occurs without such controlled fires.
“Fire can be beneficial to people, reducing wildfire threats (and) creating these beautiful habitats for wildlife,” said Parker Titus, a burn boss with Nature Conservancy.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park held its annual Fire Fest on Saturday at its visitor center. There were five stations that attendees could visit and a hayride that took them out into the basin. Each station offered ample information about how prescribed burning works to mitigate wildfire and restore and maintain the natural ecosystem.
The first station was a children's activity table that included Smokey Bear-themed coloring and activity books, temporary tattoos and a movie. Smokey Bear was also in attendance to interact with children.
The second station was hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It included a trailer that housed four campfire rings. Each ring contained a different type of vegetation, and representatives from the conservation group showed how each burns differently.
The third station offered attendees information about wildfire mitigation concerning personally owned land, such as which household plants are more easily flammable. This station was hosted by the Firewise Communities program, which offers local solutions for wildfire safety.
The fourth station offered information concerning weather measurement, which Andi Kristman, the state park's biologist, said is at the heart of prescribed fire planning.
At the table, representatives from the Florida Fire Service showed attendees the tools and processes that are used in planning and monitoring a prescribed burn.
Many factors go into determining whether a planned burn can take place. Measurement and calculations are performed to determine temperature, relative humidity and wind speed and direction. These factors can determine how well the smoke will disperse into the atmosphere (which can affect visibility and health), fire intensity, and the chance of embers reaching areas outside of the controlled area, according to Jeff DiMaggio. He is fire management officer for District 2, which covers 28 parks in 14 counties of North and Central Florida.
Service members also offered information regarding LVORI, the National Weather Service's night visibility index. At night, smoke dispersion is negatively affected by the cooling air and higher humidity. When this happens, particles in the smoke will collect additional moisture, making the fog twice as dense, according to DiMaggio.
If the index, which rates visibility from 1-10, is too high, a planned burn will be postponed.
The last station was hosted by Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization. Representatives offered information regarding conservation and prescribed fire safety and equipment. In addition, the organization, using a small brush truck, set up a “water race” for children.
According to Titus, for many years the U.S. Forest Service deemed wildfires a threat to tinder resources, which removed the natural process of fire from the ecosystems.
“What started happening was that wildfires became increasingly more difficult to suppress (and) increasingly more expensive to suppress,” he said.
It also changed the natural ecosystems, threatening native species.
”Fire is a process that Florida ecosystems have developed in conjunction with for thousands of years, and it's an important function to be able to maintain the health of these ecosystems,” Titus said.
According to Kristman, who plans the burns for the 22,000-acre park, prescribed fires at Paynes Prairie are usually under 150 acres in size. Last year, only two burns were conducted due to drought and flooding.
In addition, due to last year's wildfire and the smoke-related fatalities on Interstate 75, burns have been kept small.
After a prescribed fire is put out, there is still residual vegetation that is usually left smoldering. However, since last year's wildfire, once those involved in the burn feel that everything that is going to burn has done so, they go back out to put out any smoldering vegetation.
“(We) put out everything that is smoking so that there's no residual smoke production to feed into a nighttime condition that could result in smoke on the highways,” Titus said.