Prescribed fire is an important tool for natural resource managers in Southwest Florida. Within Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, thousands of acres of fire-dependent habitat are managed each year with the help of regional partners and crews from the Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC) in Tallahassee.
“We rely on partners for a lot of what we do here,” said Resource Management Coordinator Jeff Carter, who is responsible for overseeing the reserve’s prescribed fire program. Rookery Bay Reserve staff coordinate burn activities with the Florida Forestry Service, and work with partnering land managers and local fire departments to get the job done safely and efficiently. “We are glad we can help them, and get help at the same time,” he added, noting that this infusion of fire fighter trainees has been extremely beneficial for the reserve.
The PFTC matches fire personnel of various skill levels from around the nation with trainers at sites that require burning, resulting in a mutually beneficial opportunity. In addition to providing locationswhere PFTC personnel can gain experience, the reserve also provides dormitory space, and receives in return some very valuable help in managing its resources.
Rookery Bay Reserve staff, who manage 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters, work diligently to achieve the reserve’s resource management goals, which often include physically demanding jobs. With a goal of maintaining the native biodiversity, or natural living species population, in the reserve these managers sometimes must actually fight fire with fire.
According to Carter, one of the biggest threats to our coastal upland habitat is wildfire, which can occur when the fuel load (amount of downed limbs and other vegetative debris) builds up to a point where leaves can ignite with a lightning strike or careless spark.
In addition to reducing fuel loads, prescribed fire also:
- Maintains natural composition and density of the forest
- Stimulates seed production providing food for wildlife
- Recycles nutrients in the soil
Fire is best used as a land management tool in South Florida in winter, when humidity levels and wind direction are optimalfor the safest burns. Each January through March, residents of adjacent areas will see and possibly smell smoke from the fire, and fire activities may temporarily inconvenience motorists if wind changes direction and pushes smoke toward the roadway. Fire personnel carefully monitor the fire throughout the day until it is extinguished.
Many species of plants and animals in Southwest Florida are either directly or indirectly dependent on fire for survival. Although the reserve staff strives to mimic the natural fire regime, fire prescriptions require some extremely specific environmental conditions as well as a state-approved burn permit. For more information on the reserve’s prescribed fire program, visit www.rookerybay.org.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It serves as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for students and scientists from around the world.
Renee Wilson is Communications Coordinator at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. She has been a Florida resident since 1986 has joined the staff at the reserve in 2000.