Fire is a natural process for many plant communities in Florida. Before land was developed, fires were common in many natural areas. These fires were caused naturally by lightning strikes and extreme heat, and later by ranchers to burn wide swaths of land for cattle grazing. Fires would burn until flames reached wetland areas or rainfall occurred.
Today, the landscape in Florida has changed dramatically with the emergence of large cities and towns, and the arrival of millions of people and our homes. While these historically natural fires still occur, they now require costly suppression efforts to protect our buildings and structures. Additionally, the risk of wildfire is increased as a result of vegetation that has become overgrown and dense over time due to the lack of regular fire.
Fortunately, land managers have developed a method to mimic natural fire and reduce heavy fuel loads of overgrown vegetation in natural areas. This method is called prescribed fire.
Prescribed fires are planned in advance for areas where fire-dependent plant communities exist. The timing of a prescribed burn is influenced by seasonal rain conditions and optimal wind patterns. When conditions are safe to conduct a prescribed burn, the fire is monitored closely by trained burn professionals. Typically, flames move slowly and remain low as they burn through the dense understory.
But what happens after a fire occurs in a natural area? Here are things to look for in the days and weeks after a prescribed burn:
- Reduced fuel load that has opened the landscape for wildlife and humans to more easily navigate
- Doves, quail and other ground-feeding birds foraging on dead insects
- Woodpeckers creating homes in dead tree snags
- Increased soil fertility and vegetation re-growth, with understory plants returning and wildflowers blooming
- Improved habitat to increase plant and wildlife diversity
You may notice that some trees do not survive following a fire. However, this allows for the next generation of tree seedlings to become established. This process resembles the historic role that fire played in natural areas. Fire also recycles nutrients in the soil and minimizes the spread of non-native plants and tree diseases.
The gopher tortoise is one example of wildlife that relies on fire to keep their habitat open and non-dense. Regular fire helps this threatened species to more easily travel across the land to forage on low-growing grasses and flowers.