Why Do We Burn the Woods?
By: Connor O’Brien, Silver Springs Ranger & FPS District 3 Back Log Abatement Team
Prescribed fire has deep historical roots in the South, where the practice was quickly adopted from the Native Americans by early European settlers. It became used widely, primarily to improve forage conditions for free-ranging cattle as well as visibility and access. Likewise, hunting is deeply imbedded in southern culture and was an attraction to visitors throughout the 19th Century. In the 1920's Herbert L. Stoddard documented the necessity of prescribed burning to maintain bobwhite quail habitat for the sport of quail hunting. Opposition to the practice among foresters and public agencies was fierce, and Stoddard became an outspoken advocate of light winter burning in longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and, later, certain other forest ecosystems.
Use of prescribed fire in forestry and game management was gradually accepted. But, although some naturalists such as Stoddard were interested in the effects of fire on native flora and non-game wildlife, private landowners and public agencies generally showed little interest in managing them until the 1970's. By then, there was in the southern states a background of 50 years of research and many more years of practical experience in the use of fire that could be applied to this new goal. Soon, many biologists and managers recognized that prescribed burning would play a nearly essential role in managing certain non-game species and ecosystems.
Among habitat restoration and management practices, prescribed fire is one of many fuel reduction treatments used to remove or reduce dense vegetation that is fuel for wildfires. Dense vegetation can create intense fires that burn quickly and endanger communities like those you may have seen on the news in the western states.
Prescribed burning helps reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on our lands and surrounding communities by safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, and encouraging the new growth of native vegetation. Wildfires that burn in areas where fuels have been reduced by prescribed fire cause significantly less damage and are much easier to control.
Prescribed burning returns Florida to her original state. Before fire suppression techniques, lightning induced fires marched across the state of Florida annually, creating the unique species of plants and animals that depend upon frequent fires to survive. Stopping fire has threatened the existence of these species. When we burn, we maintain and encourage survival of the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire. Since this park began burning regularly in 2012, we have seen an increase in abundance of gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, cottontail rabbits, bluebirds, quail and rare species like brown-headed nuthatches. The blooms of Liatris, Carphephorus and others blanket the land in purple in the fall.
In conclusion prescribed fire has many benefits from habitat restoration and animal population growth to wildfire mitigation. So, the next time you see a prescribed fire happening spread your new-found knowledge to a friend, family member or even a stranger!