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Florida recognizes Prescribed Fire Awareness Week

Image of a pine tree, which grow quickly and, in many Florida ecosystems, should be burned at a fire return interval of every two to three years.
Molly Duerig
Pine trees grow quickly and, in many Florida ecosystems, should be burned at a fire return interval of every two to three years.

Every year since 1997, Florida designates the last week of January Prescribed Fire Awareness Week, highlighting one of the state’s most important land management tools.

Prescribed burning is one of the most versatile, cost-effective tools land managers use, according to the Florida Forest Service (FFS), a division of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The agency authorized nearly 83,000 prescribed burns for more than 2 million acres of land between July 2022 and June 2023, according to an annual land management report published by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

Todd Chlanda, a wildfire mitigation specialist based at the agency’s Lakeland District office, describes prescribed burning and its benefits as “a big circle.”

“You get rid of the old stuff that you don't want; that burns off, [and] it puts the nutrients back in the earth, promoting that growth, which then benefits the animals and the wildlife,” Chlanda said.

After a prescribed burn, wildlife like deer often come out to lick the ash that’s left behind, which Chlanda said has nutritional value. Burning unwanted vegetation also helps new food sources for wildlife grow in its place.

Image of trees in a nature preserve; the bottoms of the trees are black, showing the reach of flames from a prior prescribed burn.
Molly Duerig
The bottoms of these trees are black, showing the reach of flames from a prior prescribed burn in The Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve.

“The ecosystem of Florida is fire dependent,” Chlanda said. “It needs to have fire to remain healthy and to thrive … So when you see smoke and you see fire, it's not always a bad thing.”

In fact, prescribed burning helps keep people safe, by reducing the risk of an unplanned, potentially devastating wildfire, especially near residential areas. More large wildfires are happening in the eastern part of the U.S. now vs. thirty years ago, according to new University of Florida research.

“A wildfire is going to burn hot and fast. It's just going to do a lot of damage to the trees,” Chlanda said. “We typically burn against the wind. It’s a much slower burn, the flame links are a lot smaller, and the fire is a lot cooler. So it doesn’t kill as many, if any, trees.”

"Not a one and done"

Although specific plans will vary for different prescribed burns, depending on the area’s ecosystem needs and other factors, Chlanda said generally, the goal is to burn off areas every three to five years.

“We can burn something off right now, and in a couple of weeks, it's starting to grow back. And so it's not a one and done,” Chlanda said.

In general, Florida’s rapid growth rate means the consequences of not regularly burning off unwanted vegetation could be huge, according to Eugene Kelly, who chairs Florida Native Plant Society’s legislative and policy committee.

“You take fire out of the picture, and [Florida’s habitats] very quickly succeed into something else that, inevitably, is no longer able to support the native wildlife and plant life that are native to those areas,” Kelly said.

For example, Kelly says, failing to burn off quickly-growing pine flatwoods every two to three years could allow other kinds of trees, like laurel oak and sweetgum, to overtake the area, and block sunlight from reaching understory vegetation, like shrubs, grasses and legumes that wildlife depend on for food.

A challenge this year: El Niño

Florida’s unique, flat topography helps create dependable air flows for managing smoke: another reason why the state is “the nation leader in prescribed burning,” according to Chlanda, a former structure firefighter originally from Missouri.

“Having that flat topography, and being a peninsula, the smoke tends to go up,” Chlanda said. “It gets caught in the transport winds and it gets blown out over the ocean.”

Florida’s rapid pace of development and “sheer population” can pose challenges to prescribed burning, Chlanda says, especially in places like the quickly-growing region of Central Florida.

Another, statewide challenge this year: wetter conditions, caused by a strong El Niño winter that Chlanda says is making prescribed burns “a little more tricky.”

Image of a U.S. map, showing where high seasonal precipitation levels from El Niño are expected to continue through February 2024, according to the National Weather Service.
This U.S. map provided by the National Weather Service shows where above-average seasonal precipitation levels from El Niño are expected to continue through February 2024.

“Typically, the Florida Forest Service and cooperators start conducting prescribed burns sometime in November,” Chlanda wrote in an email. “This year, however, we are receiving frequent weather fronts that have been bringing moisture with them. These are happening more frequently than usual.”

The El Niño weather pattern, characterized by unusually warm Pacific Ocean waters, occurs every two to seven years. It can impact the weather globally, including in Florida, where this year's strong El Niño is expected to continue producing cooler, wetter conditions through this spring, according to Rick Davis, a senior meteorologist and incident meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay Area office.

You can use the Florida Forest Service’s burn map to see where different prescribed burns are happening in real time.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for WMFE and WMFV.

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