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A Fiery Past

Picture this: a vast open landscape dominated by pine trees and an understory lush with wiregrass. No homes are anywhere to be found, just old Florida standing in the stagnant air of summer. A large thunder cloud is rolling in during a hot afternoon and lightning strikes begin to flash the sky. Then, a lightning strike sprays a spark onto a pile of old pine needles and they begin to glow. Suddenly, a gust of wind sweeps through and smoke begins to form. Flames slowly start to emerge from the nest of needles lying on the ground and an endless supply of this fire’s fuel stretches in all directions. There is not a soul around to put it out.

prescribed burn palmetto area_1 month compare

Comparison photo showing a prescribed burn area (left) and the same area one month later (right).

This is how ecosystems were maintained and managed before man settled throughout Florida. Habitats like pine flatwoods were managed by Mother Nature. Plant and animals adjusted to live in these fire prone habitats and have unique adaptations to survive.

Today, a common term associated with fire is “fire suppression”. As man began to develop these natural lands, peoples’ lives and their homes needed to be protected from these historically and regularly occurring wildfires. Instead of fires having free range over the land, they were put out. Fire suppression is extremely important in protecting people and their property, but can be detrimental to wildlife and their habitats. As fire is kept out of an ecosystem, the plants and animals that historically lived there change; this change is often referred to as succession. Take a pine flatwoods for example. Pine trees make up most of the forest canopy and the understory consists of either saw palmetto or wiregrass. As fires rolled through these ecosystems historically about every 2-5 years, the pine tree and understory plants were able to recover and actually benefited from the recycled nutrients from the ash, the opened canopy for more sunlight and cleared understory for wildlife access. Most pine flatwoods habitats are referred to as upland habitats and tend to be drier than some other ecosystems such as a cypress swamp. These drier, upland habitats are preferred by developers. As pine flatwoods became inundated with buildings and people, lightning fires were put out. This fire suppression allowed other plants, like oak trees to grow and survive. Oak trees are not adapted to survive fire like pine trees, so historically they were killed off and kept out of pine flatwood habitats through wildfires. Without these wildfires, oaks were able to grow up and will eventually shade out and out-compete the saw palmetto and pine trees, eventually transforming the pine flatwood habitat into an oak hammock.

florida wildfire

Wildfire in Florida

As fire suppression continues, more and more pine flatwoods and their associated plants and wildlife are pushed out by plants and animals that prefer oak hammock habitats. Land managers try to mimic these historical fires with prescribed fires to prevent this from happening, in addition to other benefits described in a past blog.

During this time of year, wildfires are common. Often, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can smell fires from miles away. While the smell and sight of smoke can be scary and cause health complications, it is important for us to understand the importance of fire in the ecosystems in which we all depend on. The Florida Forest Service provides wildfire and prescribed fire data online for everyone to see. Simply visit: http://tlhfor013.doacs.state.fl.us/fmisdataviewer/ and ensure that the “Fire Incident” box is checked on the left-hand side legend. Then, you can zoom into an area where the fire symbol is located, click the blue information icon and then click on the fire symbol to find out details about the fire.

Happy Learning!