Prescribed burns are an important tool for managing Florida’s ecosystems, and in Florida they are carried out year-round.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said on its website that burns in spring and summer generally increase grasses and other non-woody species. And burns during fall and winter help shrubby plants, like saw palmetto. Many animal species are also dependent on fire, such as the threatened gopher tortoise and the endangered Cape Sable Seaside sparrow.
Jeff Weber, environmental scientist with Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, said fire is a great way to cycle nutrients through the ecosystem.
“The ash that is produced after the burns is a kind of natural fertilizer, so you will notice that the areas that were burned recover quickly after the fire,” he said. “Without combustion, these areas will get really tall and dense, especially our flat wood habitats.”
And this density could contribute to a forest fire. For example, Jay Bailey, a fire mitigation specialist with the Sarasota County Fire Department, said prescribed burns make neighborhoods near natural areas safer.
“When we actually burn, we burn what’s called the understory, which is the shrubs and grasses. It’s lower in the canopy,” he said. “You don’t have the fire going through the pines, like you would see during a wildfire. What it does is basically take out the fuel that’s on the ground. So if the fire happens , it will be much more minimal.
After wildfires scorched hundreds of homes and thousands of acres in Florida about 20 years ago, Sarasota County commissioners determined that prescribed burns were necessary to keep communities safe.
Since then, Sarasota has carried out some of the most prescribed burns in the state, according to Bailey.
“Year by year, we’ve kind of evolved to the point where we’re burning more than just about anywhere — not necessarily in acres, but in burns,” he said.
Bailey said about 60 burns were performed in Sarasota in the past fiscal year, compared to an average of zero to 20 in other counties.
Sarasota targets areas of the county that have flat woods, palm meadows, wetlands, and scrub habitats.
Sarasota County plans to hold a free educational event called Fire Fest on Saturday, January 29 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the T. Mabry Carlton, Jr. Memorial Preserve in Venice as part of Prescribed Fire Awareness Week in Florida.