Natural Areas Depend on Fire

Nature has a way of balancing itself. For forests and natural areas, this occurs through periodic fire. Forests, especially pine flatwoods and scrub habitats, depend on fire to keep them healthy and to promote new growth and biodiversity.

How does fire impact forests?

  • Removes underbrush and overgrown plants and trees to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor
  • Eliminates diseased vegetation
  • Rejuvenates soil by returning trapped nutrients back into the earth

In return, how do these impacts benefit forests?

  • Encourages new growth of native vegetation
  • Increases the quantity and quality of water since fewer competing plants are absorbing water
  • Enhances vegetative diversity and assists in growth of endangered plant species
  • Improves the wildlife habitat and provides better access to food for foraging animals

A Need for Control ...

Though forest fires are a natural occurrence that ultimately promote a healthier ecosystem, excessive amounts of fire can be quite dangerous and destructive. During dry periods, dense vegetation and underbrush are at risk of catching fire. Wildfires can spread rapidly, destroying anything in its path and creating smoke that is dangerous to our health and communities.

However, with just the right amount of controlled fire under the appropriate conditions, we can manage underbrush and prevent wildfire, while reaping other benefits as well. In consequence, prescribed burns are necessary.
 

What is a Prescribed Burn?

Prescribed burns mimic a natural fire cycle. Following precautionary measures, land managers set small, controlled fires within a carefully regulated time frame under specified weather and habitat conditions.

The purpose of a prescribed burn is to reduce the potential for future destructive wildfire and to restore healthy forests and natural communities. Within weeks of a burn, new seedlings and vegetation will start to grow, providing more food for native animals. Prescribed burns are also a cost-effective way to increase protection to people, their homes and way of life.

How do we prescribe a fire?

Our Ecosystems Restoration and Management team has a burn crew made up of individuals who have completed their required annual fire shelter training, as well as the Florida Forest Service’s required training through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Each crew is led by a “burn boss” who reviews the conditions of the area, including the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction and other environmental factors to make sure surrounding areas will be safe. Typically, there is a very narrow window of opportunity and many factors to consider. If deemed safe, just like a doctor would prescribe medicine, the burn boss will prescribe a fire.

Prescribed burn managers try to find a natural firebreak, such as a creek (1), from which they set down a wind backfire (3). This creates a blackline (2) at which the spot-headfires (set in successive ignitions (5, 6, 7) will stop. Crew members patrol a handline (4) to ensure that the burn is contained. Learn more at whyprescribedfire.org​​.

What steps are taken when controlling a prescribed burn?

Typically, regular forest maintenance take place year-round to reduce the risk of a natural wildfire and to ensure a safe controlled fire when it is prescribed. This includes maintaining the forest’s underbrush, equipment upkeep and having the right crew in place. Other steps that are taken leading up to a prescribed burn are as follows:

  • Studying weather conditions
  • Ensuring access areas remain open and creating fire breaks to keep fire contained
  • Providing advance notification to property owners in the area
  • Reducing fuel heights before a burn to reduce fire intensity
  • Coordinating with state, county and municipal fire agencies for backup assistance
  • Conducting burns during daylight hours and completing ignition within one day
  • Inspecting areas burned after and evaluating the conditions
  • Documenting wildfires and other fire-related incidents

If a controlled fire cannot be prescribed, the crew will turn to another option – Wildfire Mitigation. If this option is used, an experienced machine operator will physically remove the vegetation, reducing the height and mass of live and dead vegetation. This option will still change the entire landscape and will promote new growth.
 

SHARED STEWARDSHIP

Martin County frequently partners with the Florida Forest Service (FFS), a division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, that manages more than 1 million acres of state forests.

FFS also provides management assistance on more than 17 million acres of private and community forests, while protecting homes, forestland and natural resources from the devastating effects of wildfire on more than 26 million acres. Learn more at FloridaForestService.com. If you have any additional questions about prescribed burns in Martin County, contact Martin County Ecosystems Restoration and Management staff below.