Thursday, July 26, 2012

Just What the Doctor Ordered – The Importance of Prescribed Fire

If you have been provided a prescription recently from your doctor, you might have noticed the following phrase in your information packet:

“Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medicine because he or she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects.”

This adage can be used when thinking of prescribed fires within Florida as well. Though we may view fire as a frightening and destructive force, it has also always been an important part of our ecosystem.

Prior to Florida’s vast development, fire-susceptible areas burned naturally every three to ten years. Even those areas less susceptible to fire had a burn cycle that repeated every ten to one-hundred years. Most often, lightening would ignite the fires which would then sweep across Florida unimpeded. The cycle would repeat itself in spring and summer. Once the state’s lands started developing, wildfires could no longer be allowed to burn freely.

The absence of this natural cycle can greatly upset the balance of our entire ecosystem. Some of the purposes of burning in Florida are:
  • Cycling of  nutrients
  • Promotion of forest regeneration
  • Improvement of grazing habitat
  • Decreasing of accumulated dead fuels
  • Maintaining of fire-dependent species
Without fire in our state, the plants and animals unique to the original habitat- such as gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, wire grass and longleaf pines to name only a few- could be lost.
It is for these reasons that prescribed fire came about. Prescribed fire can be defined as the controlled application of fire to vegetative fuels according to a written prescription and under specified environmental conditions. Just as with your prescription medicine, a written fire prescription outlines the exact conditions under which the burn can be executed. Protecting people from physical harm, smoke-filled air, and poor water quality is the basis for the regulations and standards that now govern prescribed burning, and not following the prescription carefully can even result in a secondary misdemeanor charge. One can rest-assure that the potential ‘side-effects’ have been considered carefully, and precautions placed to minimize them as best as possible.

Image Courtesy of Florida Division of Forestry

GTM NERR and Prescribed Fires

Before and after photos of
a GTM NERR prescribed
fire which occured on
December 12th, 2006
GTM NERR also uses this important tool. We have been working to reintroduce the natural fire cycle to the ecosystems at the Guana River location, because our interdunal swale and freshwater marsh habitat is most certainly a fire dependent community. Though the short term appearance of the resulting habitat can seem quite disturbed, the long term effects provide a more vibrant and natural community for our specialized and sometimes threatened plants and wildlife.
In order to prepare for prescribed burns adjacent to A1A and private property, we hired a contractor to mow a strip of vegetation. This significantly reduces radiant heat and flame heights in order to minimize the potential for property damage. When completing prescribed burns, we also partner with the Florida Forest Service and St John’s County Fire Department, our goal being to restore this important natural cycle while maintaining the safety of our neighbors. Our commitment with regard to prescribed fires is to always “follow the doctor’s orders as directed”!

To learn more about prescribed fire, visit

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