UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences students have sparked their passion to preserve and restore Florida’s natural areas using prescribed fire. This week, Florida—the prescribed burn capital of the United States—is celebrating Prescribed Fire Awareness Week, intended to highlight the importance of prescribed fire for both Florida’s natural areas and residents. Hope Miller is a current master’s student studying forest resources and conservation in the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences (SFFGS). She previously earned her bachelor’s degree in forest resources and conservation from SFFGS and was involved with the UF Student Association for Fire Ecology (UF SAFE). Miller interviewed Raelene Crandall, an assistant professor who specializes in fire ecology, during her freshman year and learned about the opportunity to volunteer in Crandall’s research lab. The rest was history. Miller spent many hours in her undergraduate career working with Crandall and learning about prescribed fire. Now, she is a certified prescribed burn manager and continues to be involved with Crandall’s lab and the UF Austin Cary Forest.
Prescribed fire, sometimes called controlled burning, is the intentional application of fire to a piece of land under defined conditions to achieve specific objectives. Prescribed fire is used for various reasons by landowners, organizations, and agencies to burn flammable vegetation, which decreases the probability and severity of wildfires. Prescribed fires are different from wildfires because prescribed burns are very intentional, carefully planned and authorized by state agencies to ensure they are safely conducted. Miller said other reasons to use prescribed fire include wildlife management, invasive plant management, and some research even suggests prescribed fires can help reduce tick populations. For owners of timber operations, prescribed fire can clear unwanted vegetation around trees or reduce debris after a harvest, before planting new trees.
Overall, prescribed fire creates healthy ecosystems in Florida. Prior to natural areas being developed for human use, areas in Florida and across the U.S. were impacted by frequent wildfires, ignited by lightning strikes and other causes. After more people occupied the land, a phase of wildfire suppression occurred where quickly after their outbreak, wildfires were immediately extinguished, and before the use of prescribed fires, natural areas never had the opportunity to burn, essentially changing them from their natural state.
“Prescribed fire is used with the broad goal of ecological restoration, where we burn the land in ways that it would have burned if humans weren’t here,” Miller said.
UF SAFE is a student-led group advised by Crandall, with a mission to assist students in obtaining certifications and finding burn opportunities. UF SAFE is part of an international organization, the Association for Fire Ecology, an international group of fire researchers and practitioners. Miller said her undergraduate experiences with UF SAFE provided opportunities for her to burn with private landowners, connect with the industry, and even go on a spring break trip to do a prescribed burn with other UF SAFE members at Disney’s Fort Wilderness.
“I love the sound of fire; it is a total ASMR moment. I also love being involved with something natural that creates a balance between man and nature. Going back to a burn site after a burn and seeing new growth is always so rewarding to me,” Miller said.
Students who are interested in getting involved in UF SAFE can reach out to Crandall for potential volunteer opportunities in her lab. Miller said extra hands make the work go faster and she always enjoyed attending the pretty locations and research burns. Be sure to reach out to Crandall or visit the Facebook page for UF SAFE for more information on how to get involved.