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Fire is Florida’s Friend

Flat, green and wet. A verdant expanse of swamp, river and estuary. But also, seasonally dry, home to cactus and a friend of fire. Florida is a land of dichotomy, initially identified by its vast wet expanses but shaped by a history of fire. Long before the settlement of Florida by European colonists, indigenous peoples were using fire as a tool to encourage grazing habitat for deer, turkey and other wildlife. The use of fire during this time period mimicked the observed natural fire regimes in frequency and seasonal timing. European colonization of the peninsula was followed by drastic changes in historic fire regimes. The turpentine and logging industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries altered the composition of plants in Florida ecosystems and increased the prevalence of fire suppression. Pre-settlement estimates of the range of Longleaf Pine ecosystems (which encompasses; sandhill, flatwoods, savannas, seeps and prairies) were 37 million hectares (approx. 91 million acres). Approximately 2.2% of the original area remains, with only about 0.2% being managed with fire effectively. (Jose, et al. 2007)

The appropriate preservation and management of the remaining range is incredibly important for the protection of endemic plant species. The Atlantic Coastal Plain region contains some 6000 plant taxa, representing a quarter of all plant species that occur in North America. Of those more than 1500 are endemic to the region. This area is recognized as one of the most biodiverse in the world. (Jose, et al. 2007) While at first glance, flatwoods or prairies may appear to only contain a few grasses, pines or palmetto, upon closer examination you would find a vastly diverse population of plants. The main plant types found in fire dependent ecosystems are; pines, oaks, palmetto, grasses and sedges, legumes and other forbs. The list below shows some common species, but is not inclusive.

Trees Grasses Legumes Forbs
Pinus palustris Longleaf Pine Aristida stricta Wiregrass Tephrosia virginiana Goat’s Rue Coreopsis lanceolata Thickleaf Coreopsis
Pinus elliottii Slash Pine Andropogon spp. Bluestem Rhynchosia reniformis Dollarleaf Eupatorium spp. Dogfennel
Quercus chapmani Chapman’s Oak Schizacyrium spp. Bluestem Centrosema virginianum Spurred Butterfly Pea Liatris spp. Blazing star
Quercus geminata Sand Live Oak Sorghastrum secundum Lopsided Indian-grass Crotalaria sagittalis Arrow Crotalaria Solidago spp. Goldenrod

Research to determine how best to manage our remaining fire-dependent ecosystems relies on extensive historical knowledge. Due to the logging of the Florida peninsula, old growth pines are mostly absent but stumps from historical logging can still provide valuable information. A recent presentation by Dr. Jean Huffman at a meeting of the Serenoa chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society discussed her research into fire scars on 150+ year old pines. The placement of scars within the cambium can identify at what time of year the fires occurred. Based on her research it is now known that fires occurred every 1-3 years during the growing season. This is in contrast to the practice of applying fire in the dormant season, which became common after the development of the peninsula. This revelation is widely accepted by land managers who have witnessed an increase in fecundity of native grasses when burned during the growing season.

Today’s land managers understand that our ecosystems need frequent fire but they are often tasked with balancing the needs of the public with the needs of the ecosystem. Fires create smoke, which can become a visibility issue on roadways or a respiratory issue for individuals that live nearby. In order to burn an area, the conditions must be conducive; i.e. wind speed and direction, humidity, temperature, recent rainfall etc.

What does this mean for us in Manatee County?

Manatee County has an active prescribed fire program, managed through the Parks and Natural Resources Department with 25,780 acres under burn management and 4,568 of those acres overdue for burning. The map shows areas that are actively under burn management. The areas in rotation listed as ‘due’ are within their interval based on habitat type.  If the zone is prairie, for instance, it has a 2-3 year interval.  A prairie zone that is due has been burned in the last 2-3 years.   A prairie zone shown as ‘overdue’ has been 3 or more years without a burn. (Ray Vinson, Manatee County)

With more than a thousand endemic species and a vast diversity of plants, our fire-dependent ecosystems are worthy of preservation. We should seek to restore and preserve the remaining intact swaths of land in hopes that we may see the peninsula of Florida as Bartram saw it in his travels:

“….expansive airy pine forests…of the great long-leaved pine…the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants, and embellished with extensive savannas, always green….” (Bartram, 1791)

 

 

Additional Resources:

Tall Timber Research Station https://talltimbers.org/old-longleaf-pines-will-assist-with-tree-ring-study-of-historical-fires/

Jose S., Jokela E.J., Miller D.L. (2007) The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem.

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Prescribed Fire Program: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Wildland-Fire/Prescribed-Fire

Florida Interagency Coordination Center: https://www.fl-ficc.com/prescribed-fire/

UF/IFAS Fire and Habitat: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/archive/hot_topics/environment/fire_habitat.shtml