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New UF-housed wildfire ‘strike team’ teaches safe burning techniques

 

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When it comes to fighting fires, it’s usually the guy with the hose that gets all the hero worship. But as ever-increasing temperatures and droughts bring a greater threat from wildfires, sometimes it’s the guy with a torch who can do the most good.

“Fire is an art,” said Parker Titus, a specialist with more than 400 controlled burns on his resume. “It’s one of the most powerful influences on our natural systems. Knowing how to use it — and not let it get out of control — is an essential part of the conservation effort.”

This week, Titus and his crew, the newly formed Northeast Florida Resource Management Support Team, will be sharing that knowledge with 40 students and public agency employees.

The team will help teach how to stay safe while practicing controlled burns as part of a weeklong basic wildland firefighter training program conducted by the University of Florida, The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Areas Training Academy.

The course will be a mix of classroom instruction on the UF campus and a day of hands-on demonstration at the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station in Putnam County, where the team is housed.

“We have a full roster of students and a long waiting list,” said Linda Demetropoulos, the training academy’s program manager. “This is an issue that people who work in settings like parks and preserves need to know about.”

Controlled burns seek to use fire to remove the natural clutter that serves as kindling for larger and more dangerous wildfires.

Last year alone, 2,894 wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres in Florida. One blaze resulted in nearly $10 million in property damage. According to a report issued in an April edition of the journal Science, rising temperatures associated with climate change are increasing this wildfire threat nationwide.

However, prescribed burning is much more than just a preventative measure. Much of Florida’s wildlife relies on fire to renew natural habitat. Species like the gopher tortoise and the Florida scrub jay rely on it.

“We live in a balance with nature, or we try to,” said Zachary Prusak, state fire manager for the conservancy. “Controlled burning reduces the intensity of wildfires and keeps our habitats healthy.”

Managed by the conservancy and supported by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the team consists of Titus, Andrew Rappe, Andrew Slack and Daniel Godwin. The four are responsible for helping many public agencies east of Interstate 75 from Orlando north to the Georgia border.

Also charged with tasks such as removing invasive species and monitoring wildlife, the crew has aided in nearly 50 controlled burns since it was established roughly a year ago with funds from a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission grant.

The typical tool used for controlled burning is called a drip torch, which looks a bit like a pesticide sprayer whose nozzle has been swapped out with a firelighter. This torch is what most of the students will be learning to use.

The team also has a few tools that aren’t for novices, such as a heavy-duty pickup and ATV, both equipped with mounted torches and other modifications. Then there are the even less conventional tools sometimes employed to set a controlled fire.

Titus says he’s seen flare pistols, bows loaded with flaming arrows, helicopters with flame throwers and even torches carried horseback.

“You use whatever you have that will work well,” he said. “But you never forget that your first priority is always safety.”

Contacts:
Writer: Stu Hutson, 352-373-3569, stu@ufl.edu

Sources: Parker Titus, 352-258-4483, ptitus@tnc.org

Stephen Coates, 352-846-0576, scoates@ufl.edu

Zachary Prusak, zprusak@tnc.org

Photo caption.

In this file photo from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, UF operations engineer Erick Smith sets fire to underbrush as part of a controlled burn near the UF campus in Gainesville. (University of Florida/IFAS/Thomas Wright).