Fire in Florida
Fire is one of the most versatile and cost effective land management tools within Florida. Forests in the southeast U.S. owe their existence to a long history of periodic fires. Forests in Florida have existed for at least 12,000 years and thousands of fires occurred naturally by lightening strikes. Fires, like many natural events, are cyclic and governed by conditions such as climate and existing vegetation. The repeatability of the cycle varies depending on habitat.
A Natural Cycle
Before 1900, fire-susceptible areas burned naturally every three to ten years. However, even in areas less likely to burn, the cycle still repeats every ten to 100 years in Florida. Fire is important to our landscape because it breaks down complex organic molecules to smaller ones - the same thing that occurs when we digest food. When a fire changes a log to ash, nutrients bound by chemical compounds are released and changed to a form where they can be more readily utilized.
The Impact of Development
Thousands of years of natural fires resulted in a dynamic balance between various habitats and the wildlife that live here. Historically, fires would burn across a landscape unhindered by highways and housing communities. Since the early 1900s, humans have fragmented our landscape and fires cannot burn in a natural pattern. Thus when a fire does occur, it can be catastrophic due to mass build-up of understory native plants, like palmetto and gallberry. How, then, can the powerful force of fire be used in a way that cooperates, not conflicts, with nature?
Restoring the Balance
Prescribed burning is one way in which land managers have attempted to simulate historic fire patterns. Native Americans knew the benefits of fire and had been utilizing prescribed burning for centuries to control insects, create space for crops and improve wildlife and grazing habitat. Modern land managers use fire to reduce hazardous fuel buildup, thus providing increased protection to people, their homes and the forest. Other uses include disease control in young pines, habitat improvement for wildlife, range management, preservation of endangered plant and animal species and the maintenance of fire dependent ecosystems. The Florida Division of Forestry (DOF) reports an average of 2 million acres treated with prescribed burns each year. Fire is so important to our natural habitat its governed by Florida Statutes Chapter 590 and Florida Administrative Code Chapter 5I-2.
Right now, the County has one major parcel in which three burns have taken place – the Turnbull Creek Regional Off-site Mitigation Area. Key Environmental Division staff has taken the required courses to participate and lead burns. However, due to the large areas the County plans to burn, collaboration with such partners like DOF, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve are essential to maintain fire on County property.