GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Drought has been making news in Florida, fueling more than 2,100 wildfires burning 170,000 acres since the start of the year, according to The Florida Forest Service.
And with up to a 12-inch rain deficit throughout the state and temperatures predicted to continue above normal, relief may not be in sight, even if the rainy season starts soon, according to the National Weather Service.
Florida’s forests are fire-dependent, and prescribed burning eliminates the woody understory that serves as ladder fuel for wildfires if left unburned. They need to be burned about every three years to maintain the proper balance and diversity of vegetation for forest health and wildlife habitat. The difference between a prescribed burn and wildfire is control. And since Brian Bickel has managed his forest by burning it regularly, he has reduced the risk of wildfire hazard. If an unplanned fire sweeps through his forest, it will most likely burn with less intensity and size.
Wildfires are expensive. It costs from $300 to $723 per acre to suppress a wildfire, said Susan Kett, prescribed fires specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Compare that to $15 to $50 an acre to do a prescribed burn, according to Eric Staller, natural resource coordinator at Tall Timbers Research Station. The research station, located in Tallahassee, Fla., conducts research on fire ecology.
The Florida Forestry Association reports that most of Florida’s 17.3 million acres of timberland are privately owned. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners like Bickel to manage their forests, planting fire-tolerant longleaf pine, installing firebreaks and prescribe burning though several initiatives under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. The Conservation Stewardship Program can help through forestry-related enhancements. Since October 2013 to October 2016, NRCS has helped private landowners do prescribed burns on 52,947.9 acres in Florida.
Bickel wanted a natural forest setting when he bought the old cow pasture with fence rows in 1986. He ripped out the fences and planted longleaf pine and slash pine 11 years ago. He found setting prescribed burns the last three years mimicked Mother Nature and eliminated invasive plants. He discovered his native longleaf pine trees held up really well in fires. Controlled burns gave life to a fresh understory of plants that provides food and shelter for wildlife. Now Bickel has the forest he envisioned. “I enjoy seeing wild turkey, deer, fox squirrels and gopher tortoise. And the quail are back,” he said.
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