The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. Fire is essential to managing the majority of the Service's 95-million-acres, which includes 548 national wildlife refuges, some 27,000 small tracts of land in special management areas, 69 national fish hatcheries and numerous other sites in the United States and its territories.
The Service's Fire Management Program is currently administered as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System under the Division of Natural Resources, and protects and manages burnable acres on all Service lands. The program also provides mutual aid to other federal, state and local fire management agencies and is a member of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of federal and state fire managers that determines standards for wildland fire training and operations.
The Service's team of fire management professionals has significant expertise not only in fire planning and operations, but in a range of scientific and technical areas, including fire ecology and fire science, smoke management, hydrology, wildlife and fisheries biology, forestry, range conservation, soil science and water resources.
History of Fire in the Everglades and Prescribed Fire Management
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, large scale wildfires were a relatively common occurrence throughout peninsular Florida, especially during drought years. These catastrophic wildfires, usually started by lightning, helped to shape and form the vegetative communities throughout Florida, both inland, the Everglades, and coastal habitats such as the pine flatwoods and sand pine scrub. The mangrove community was the exception and rarely, if ever, burned. Plants and animals became adapted to natural fire occurrence. The combination of fire and flow of water helped create the unique mosaic habitat found in the Everglades. Vast expanses of sawgrass burned with great intensity while higher elevated habitats surrounded by water, such as bayheads and tree islands, under all but extremely dry conditions, survived these wildfires. Deeper water areas such as wet prairies and sloughs typically did not carry the fire and burned with much lower intensity as they usually remained somewhat wet. Under extremely dry conditions, the soil, also known as peat or muck, would inevitably burn. This would have probably led to the formation of inland pools or ponds, as fires burned through to the underlying limestone, which would have benefited alligators, fish, wading birds, and waterfowl.
European settlers first penetrated the south Florida wilderness, they
encountered Native Americans using fire for a variety of purposes
and they would later adopt some of the same practices. Native Americans
used fire to burn away dense vegetation and to drive game during a
hunt. They also noted that game was more plentiful and healthier after
a fire event.
Before there was game enforcement, early "Gladesmen" often used the practice of night burning to
drive and poach white-tailed deer. Large
scale settlement and drainage and manipulation of water levels in
the Everglades that occurred in the early 20th century adversely affected
fire occurrence in south Florida. Humans have fragmented, developed,
and over drained the Everglades. This led to a decrease in fire occurrence,
yet due to the accumulation of fuels over time, wildfires are more
intense and destructive.
Introduction of invasive, exotic plants, such
as Melaleuca and Old World climbing fern, has had a detrimental effect
on when or where fires can be used as a resource management tool. Drainage
and manipulation of the Everglades has increased the potential for
damaging muck fires. Dry muck or peat can be fully consumed during
extreme fire conditions and this can lead to changes in the Everglades
vegetative community. Tree islands, normally protected from fire because
they are usually surrounded by water, may in turn be susceptible to
damaging wildfires and may not be able to fully recover. In addition,
they may be subject to invasion by exotic plants.
During times of
drought and low water fire managers and the South Florida Water Management
District consult regularly about the potential for muck fire ignition
and plan carefully to mitigate the potential for these events. Today,
natural area resource managers and wildlife biologists have adopted
the use of "prescribed fire" as a key fire management tool to manipulate vegetative
communities and benefit wildlife species dependent upon fire-adapted
Benefits of prescribed fire management include: restoration
and maintenance of fire-dependent communities; a reduction in destructive
wildfires; reduces invasion by hardwood species; the perpetuation
of fire-adapted flora and fauna; cycles nutrients; controls tree disease;
and opens scenic vistas. These
periodic fires protect the urban interface and private landowner from
A prescribed fire is conducted, generally,
under ideal conditions and with specific goals and objectives in mind.
Factors such as wind speed and direction, relative humidity, temperature,
fuel moisture and fuel type, and drought index are all important factors
to address prior to conducting a prescribed burn.