Prescribed burns fuel big piece of Florida's forest management

Published February 11 2016
Updated February 11 2016

Nearly three dozen fire experts, nine fire engines, six bulldozers and a single helicopter — that's the sum of what it took to operate a prescribed burn through 3,600 acres of Florida forest this week.

That, plus hours of planning and playing weatherman.

With a spark ignited from a helicopter, the Withlacoochee Forestry Center carefully blazed over 3,000 acres in the Withlacoochee Forest on the border between Pasco and Hernando counties.

Every year, prescribed burns light up around Florida and Tampa Bay.

In an average year, the Florida Forest Service issues about 120,000 authorizations allowing agencies and land owners to burn more than 2 million acres. These planned, controlled fires happen in county and state parks, conservation land, private and public property, sugarcane and citrus fields, and pastures.

Prescribed fire is one of the most effective tools for clearing out hazardous fuel buildups, said Keith Mousel, Withlacoochee center manager.

Over time, excess brush, foliage and growth accumulates in forests, which creates a risk of wildfire and destroys the habitat for animals.

"Fire becomes... the way of cleaning the forest of the debris that has fallen over the year," Mousel said. "It's important because this is what Mother Nature would have done years ago in our absence."

Mousel noted that prescribed burns don't eliminate the risk of a wildfire because "fuel" — brush, trees, etc. —is always building up.

But if a fire does start in an area where there has been a prescribed burn, the intensity drops drastically.

Cristina Esposito, land manager for Pasco County, said her department has planned for three prescribed burns this year — two wilderness parks and one preserve area covering about 70 acres.

To make a burn happen, they work with Pasco County fire department and the state forest service.

"We burn for a couple of primary reasons," Esposito said. "We want to make sure fuel loads are down, of course, but our main goal is to restore and maintain the habitat of the area."

Pasco burns are typically started on the ground.

The day of a burn, plans have been set for awhile. The Pasco crew walks the grounds, plows containment lines — they try to use a body of water as a border — and does a test burn before starting the fire.

You're thinking of the old adage, right? If you play with fire, you're bound to get burned. When you combine something dangerous like fire with unpredictable wind and weather, what's stopping these burns from getting out of hand?

"There's always a slight risk of escape burns," said Judith Tear, mitigation specialist and information officer for the forestry center. "But it's less than 1 percent."

In March 2013, a prescribed burn of 220 acres in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area near Brooksville scorched about 775 acres of land , including part of a nearby subdivision.

Two months after the fire, a Florida Fish and Wildlife investigation concluded that changing wind shifted the blaze toward the neighborhood. No one was injured, and while no houses were lost, residents said they were left with thousands of dollars in property damage like broken sprinkler systems, ruined lawns and destroyed shrubs.

Weather and wind are key factors in planning the burns.

"We use the wind to our advantage," Mousel said.

"If we recognize that something is happening with the weather, we may stop igniting and then go into a suppression type mode," Mousel said.

Florida is an all-year burn state, Mousel said, but cooler weather has an advantage.

The temperature that kills plants is about 140 degrees, he said, so if you're burning and want to keep things alive, it's best to have colder weather.

"If you're burning and it's already 90 degrees outside, it can help to wait until it's colder," he said. "That temperature acts as a nice buffer."

Contact Hanna Marcus at hmarcus@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8603. Follow @hannaemarcus.

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