Prescribed burns benefit Florida environment

Posted 6/23/21

Sugar cane field burns only account for about 20% of the state’s prescribed fires each year, …

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Prescribed burns benefit Florida environment


CLEWISTON -- Prescribed burns of sugar cane fields have gotten a lot of attention in the media in recent years, but cane field burns only account for about 20% of the state’s prescribed fires each year, according to data from the Florida Forest Service (FFS).

Historically, fire was part of the natural cycle in Florida. Accounts recorded by pioneers detail the cycle of flood-drought-fire.

“Florida is a fire prone ecosystem,” explained Jim Karels, who joined Natural Resource Planning Services in 2020 after retiring from  the Florida Forest Service. Karels, who was the director of the Florida  Forest Service from 2008 to 2020, also served as the president of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) and the chairman of the NASF Wildland Fire Committee.

“Fire is critical to a having a healthy ecosystem,” said Karels. “Florida evolved under fire.” He said ecosystem needs periodic fires to clean out the dead brush and allow new vegetation to grow.

Since the establishment of the Central & Southern Florida  Project in 1948, water managers have tamed the most of the flooding. But in the dry season wildfires are still common in the undeveloped areas, often from lightning strikes. If the fires do not threaten any structures or roads, FFS seeks to control rather than extinguish the blazes.

FFS also uses fire as a tool. “Prescribed fire is one of the most versatile and cost-effective tools land managers use,” according to the FFS website. “Prescribed fire is used to reduce hazardous fuel buildups, thus providing increased protection to people, their homes and the forest. Other uses include disease control in young pines, wildlife habitat improvement, range management, preservation of endangered plant and animal species and the maintenance of fire-dependent ecosystems.”

Every year, the FFS permits prescribed fires on about 2.1 million acres, explained Miguel Nevarez, of the FFS. Less than half of those burns are for agricultural purposes. Prescribed burns are used by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to burn off dead brush in areas like the marshes around Lake Okeechobee. Burns are also used to prepare land for development.

In addition to the prescribed burns, wildfires consume an average of 92,000 acres per year, based on data from 2010-2020.

For that same period, agricultural burns averaged 857,295 acres per year, with about half of those burns – an average of 425,007 acres per year – involving sugar cane fields.

“An agriculture burn is used specifically for agriculture reasons such as the cultivation of soil for growing crops and sugar cane,” explained Nevarez. “Prescribed burns are also conducted for environmental purposes such as wildfire mitigation, disease control, removal of invasive vegetation, and the overall health of Florida’s ecosystem.

Of the prescribed burns authorized by FFS each year, sugar cane fields account for about 20% of the acreage burned.

While wildfires account for less than 3% of the fires in the state, smoke from wildfires is much more likely to cause problems along roadways and in populated areas. That’s because wildfires are ... wild, while prescribed burns are monitored and controlled. In May, the Bobcat fire, believed to be started by a lightning strike in the Holey Land Wildlife Management Area, burned about 25,000 acres over four days, with smoke plumes impairing visibility on roads and creating health hazards for those with breathing issues. Palm Beach County residents from Delay Beach to Belle Glade reported experiencing wildfire smoke, which changed direction with the wind.

“Prescribed burns are planned weeks and months in advance,” Nevarez explained. “Before a burn is conducted, we make sure that the weather conditions are suitable for the authorization of the burn. Wind speed, direction of surface and transport winds, mixing height, relative humidity, temperature, and fine fuel moisture are all factors that we consider. If during planning we see that there might be a significant impact to smoke sensitive areas, the burn plan must be changed.”

Florida leads the nation in prescribed fire training, said Karels. “Florida Forest Service really does a good job of managing prescribed fire to its best effect and at the least impact to the public, and it’s getting better every year.”

Other states have modeled their prescribed burn programs on Florida’s, he said.

Florida leads the nation in the amount of prescribed burning and in the training of those who conduct the burns, he said. In the 1980s, FFS put together a prescribed training program. In the early 1990s and after the wildfires of 1998, the Florida Legislature strengthened the program.

The training and the technology used continue to improve, he said. FFS uses state-of-the-art computer modeling to anticipate where smoke plumes will go. “It helps us better map and manage the smoke,” Karels said. With the state population growing every day, “you’ve got to have a pretty sophisticated well-managed program to guarantee the safety of the public,” he continued.

In the case of sugar cane burns, permits are usually given by 40-acre field, for a given day, either in the morning or afternoon. It takes these skilled workers about 15 to 20 minutes to burn 40 acres of cane. Permits are not given until the day of the burn, and can be canceled if weather conditions change.

On a  sunny, windless day, cane fields are burned using ring fire, said Karels. The field is lighted from all sides, causing the fire to pull itself together and quickly consume the leaf litter.

“In a sugar field you’re not worried about it getting too hot,” he continued. In a forest burn, a different plan may be adapted. “Florida Foresty Service is trying to minimize the impact of the smoke so sometimes a backing fire may be used.

“The goal is for the smoke to go high up in the atmosphere to take it away from anything that might be impacted by the smoke,” said Karels.

Karels said while he is aware of the lawsuit filed over sugar cane burning, he has not heard about any lawsuits regarding the other 80% of prescribed burns.

“Occasionally, you’ll have someone object to a burn, but that’s usually because they don’t understand the benefits,” he added. Karels said most complaints come from people “who don’t understand nature.”

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