Fire crackles as it burns through saw palmetto and a carpet of pine needles, leaving nutrient-laden ash and clearing a path for new growth in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. I watch the smoke curling upwards: it's dispersing high into the air, satisfying my need to know that our smoke will have minimal to no impact on our neighbors.
Fire is vital to and has been shaping the Florida landscape for hundreds of years. Of the 13,000 acres in the Sanctuary, our goal is to burn roughly 1,500 acres of fire-dependent habitat per year. We conduct prescribed fires here to reduce fuel loads (thus minimizing the risk of wildfires), regenerate marshes and wet prairies, perpetuate fire-dependent plant species, and ensure healthy habitat for animals such as Northern Bobwhite Quail, Wild Turkey, and White-tailed Deer.
While prescribed fire is an extremely effective management tool, it is also a dance of people and equipment that must fluidly adapt to changes in weather conditions throughout the day. As a burn boss for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, I am responsible for this choreography, as well as the safety of the land and people. It can be a daunting task.
But what is a “prescribed fire?” According to Florida Forest Service, it is the “controlled application of fire to existing naturally occurring fuels under specified environmental conditions, following appropriate precautionary measures, which allows the fire to be confined to a predetermined area and accomplishes the planned land management objectives.” A great deal of planning and preparation goes into each and every fire we conduct at Corkscrew Swamp.
During the prescribed fire season, we constantly monitor the weather for the opportune time to get fire on the ground. In preparation, firebreaks are cleared, snags are dropped, and dense vegetation is trimmed to minimize the risk of fire jumping out of the burn unit.
When ideal conditions prevail, dawn finds me already on the phone with the local Florida Forestry Office, pulling a permit. An important part of the permitting process is performing a smokescreen. The smokescreen tells me where the smoke will go, and we select winds to minimize smoke impacts to our neighbors.
Meanwhile, my crew performs final operational checks on fire equipment and gears up in appropriate protective clothing. After a crew briefing, we head out to our unit, and once all equipment and personnel are staged, we conduct a test fire to better gauge conditions on the ground.
By sunset, ignition has long since stopped, and the crew has moved into “mop-up” mode to extinguish any lingering flames or hotspots of material around the perimeter of the unit. As burn boss, I stay on-site overnight, making routine checks of the unit along the perimeter. We continue to monitor the units for days afterward.
These are long, grueling days, but rewarding to see the new growth and response of wildlife to these fire maintained areas.
Senior Resource Manager