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Fairy Tales and Pixie Dust

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

My languid eyes gently follow the column of blue grey smoke. Just as suddenly as the waves of ash dart up from beneath the pines, the wind again guides the rising column between me and the sun. For a moment, the harsh rays of the sun become passive under quiet grey curtains. Ever changing, ever drifting, the column climbs high above the flames amidst the plants and white sandy soil below. “Looks like that south wind forecasted is more of a due east right now” I say over my handheld radio with a sigh. Winds approaching from the south in this terrain are always the most unpredictable. At this moment, I am challenged with being the conductor of an untamed symphony, leading this blazing orchestra through a sonata of tough love and eventual nourishment this land so desperately needs. In today’s world, we refer to this fondly as prescribed fire.

A startled grasshopper leaps from the cover of the yellow green leaves of a saw palmetto bush. The radiant waves of fire dance toward the plant, causing the preheated leaves slick with flammable oozing wax to suddenly burst into an inferno. The frantic beating of ten thousand tiny wings fills the air as the creeping tide of the fire consumes further. A small cotton rat darts through the dense groundcover, flicking his whiskers as he turns back toward the heat. He knows that to dart into the open may catch the wary eye of a red shouldered hawk but there is no other choice, so he hops on quickly. A gopher tortoise paddles beyond a white sandy soil apron entrance and slides safely into her carefully sculpted half-moon burrow. She scrapes on past the gopher frog and shiny black indigo snake sharing the cool tunnel beneath the flames above. The gopher frog blinks uneasily as the smoke wafts through the communal tunnel.

Today is all about a natural form of change that is part of the ebb and flow of the different kingdoms of life in the sandhills of Florida. Those who choose to dedicate their lives to helping mimic the cycle of rebirth found in the effects of fire always find solace in the fact that it is a labor of love. The life of a fire practitioner is frequently shrouded in secrecy from the outside world, often not very well understood by those in the rest of society. Most members of society see the billowing columns of smoke, perhaps even their cars being covered by the ash and assume the world – or at least part of it – is coming to an end.

What exactly is a prescribed fire? I could sum it up in a few brief words. It is applying fire to the land (which is technically called broadcast burning) under specific, measured, predictable conditions to achieve predetermined goals and objectives for an area. A prescribed burn in Florida can range from under one acre in size to as many as 11,000 acres in a single day (that’s the most I’ve ever heard of being burned in one day anyhow). We burn for many reasons. Every burn has its purpose. Farmers may burn their fields to improve conditions for crops, foresters may burn in preparation for trees to be planted, biologists may burn for wildlife management, restorationists may burn to restore natural areas that have been altered in some major way, and all of us at one time or another will burn to reduce hazardous fuels built up from the absence of fire. We burn for many other reasons as well. A secret one of mine is aesthetics.

Surprisingly, prescribed fire is well established in Florida’s statutes. In Chapter 590.125(3), it clearly establishes that “The application of prescribed burning is a land management tool that benefits the safety of the public, the environment, and the economy of the state.” It takes some muscle to get that kind of language solidified in state law. Way back when I was four years old, there was a landmark legislation that was passed called the Prescribed Burning Act of 1990. I did not hear of it until I got to college, and soon came to understand how important it is for conservation. On average, somewhere around 88,000 individual burns take place each year which totals to around 2.1 million acres according to the leading authority on prescribed burning and wildfire – the Florida Forest Service. The state has determined that burning is so important, that gross negligence must be proven if you have have a burn that causes an incident. That is powerful, but certainly does not absolve anyone of due diligence when they decide to burn.

I swear that I am not some pyro maniac, shivering with excitement at the sight of a flame. Quite the contrary. What I enjoy most is simply the aftereffects, which come in the form of nutrients being recycled in the soil, new plant growth, wildflower blooms, improved access for food, and also how it gets rid of those damn ticks (among other pests). This kind of work is not all fairy tales and pixie dust though. The old saying “when you play with fire, you wind up burned” rings true some days. There is nothing romantic about your best laid plans unraveling in an instant...



CWL, 11/13/22


Mesic Flatwoods burning in North Florida

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