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The Wildfires — And The Wildlife — Will Return, UF Experts Say

Chris Eversole

Henry Gholz (352) 846-0889
George Tanner (352) 846-0570

GAINESVILLE — Florida won’t be safe from fire once all this summer’s wildfires are extinguished because development has added to the natural fire hazards already part of the state’s landscape, University of Florida researchers say.

“The conditions that turned the state into a tinder box this summer will continue, and wildfires will return,” said Henry Gholz, a forest ecologist with the UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

But as devastating as the flames have been recently, the wildlife and vegetation will also return.

After fires, undergrowth immediately begins to spring back, said UF wildlife ecologist George Tanner. The rapid regrowth of vegetation will help wildlife’s recovery, he said.

“Many of the animals in the areas hit By the blazes survived By running or flying from the path of the fire or By entering burrows. It will be interesting to watch how fast they reestablish themselves.

“By fall, we’ll have 10 to 12 inches of grasses and other plants in the burned forests, and in several years there will be an accumulation of enough dead undergrowth to present a fire hazard,” Tanner said.

Those natural conditions have ignited fires throughout the state’s history, said Gholz. “Our vegetation grows rapidly, and dead underbrush mounts up quickly. On top of that, we are the lightning capital of the United States, and we experience periodic droughts.”

People have compounded the fire hazard in several ways, Gholz said.

For example, timber companies and farmers have planted thousands of acres of forests in Florida since the 1960s. Timber acreage is expanding because the trees are fetching higher prices as environmental regulations limit timber production in the West and demand for forest products grows.

“Having many trees tightly together, often with small breaks between tracts, created a gigantic fuel mass. Although this year’s fires were widespread, much of the timber acreage in the state remained intact, and it presents a fire hazard for the future.”

To make matters worse, many of Florida’s wild areas are not being managed to reduce wildfire hazards, Gholz said. Prescribed fires — ones that fire managers start on purpose and are not intense wildfires — need to be conducted periodically to burn off the accumulated understory vegetation and dead litter that fuels wildfires.

But staging prescribed fires is becoming tougher. “You have to try to avoid having smoke block visibility on highways, and you have to be concerned about causing health problems for people with asthma and other respiratory conditions,” Gholz said.

“Landowners are afraid of being sued over health problems caused by prescribed fires and over damage if the fires get out of control. Also, as subdivisions are being built into forests, it becomes impractical to stage controlled burns in those areas.”

Finally, regulations limit prescribed fires, Gholz added. “You can only burn under certain conditions — when the temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction are right. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now also regulates the amount of smoke that is permitted.”

This summer’s wildfires may help Floridians appreciate the importance of prescribed fires and could lead to loosening the regulations on the burns, Tanner said.

“People need to realize that fire is part of living in Florida,” he said. “It’s better to put up with a little soot and smoke from prescribed fires once in a while than to face massive destructive wildfires.”