National Key Deer Refuge
Southeast Region
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Fire Ecology, An Introduction

Like wildlife, wildfire has always been a part of natural areas.  Fire ecology is the study of how fire affects and is affected by ecosystem processes. Every ecosystem experiences differences in fire frequency, intensity, size, and seasonality and these different fire behavior patterns are described as fire regimes. Fire regimes vary over time and space and can be altered by human actions such as housing construction and fire suppression. 


Fire History in the Florida Keys

Before the Florida Keys were settled, natural lightning-caused fires shaped the wilderness and had a major influence on plant and animal diversity.  Fire history studies done in the Florida Keys show a long history of frequent fires.  Many plants common in these forests have adaptations that allow them to survive these regular fires.  One example is Slash Pine which has a thick bark that insulates the inner, living tissues from the fire’s heat.


A Fire Ecology Snapshot: Pine Rocklands

Pine rocklands, which occur in southern Florida and the Bahamas, contain the highest plant diversity of any habitat in Florida.  A total of 250 plants have been identified in pine rocklands, five of which occur only on our islands. To ensure the health and productivity of the pine rocklands for the plants and animals it supports, fire must remain a part of the ecosystem.
For example, many rare plants endemic to the Pine Rocklands such as Deltoid Spurge, Sand Flax, and Big Pine Partridge Pea flourish the most following a fire. After a fire, shrubs such as Locust-berry and Long-stalked Stopper easily re-sprout from their roots. Many animals, such as the endangered Key Deer, often browse recently burned Pine Rocklands because fire stimulates the growth of many plants they depend on.  


Fire Monitoring and Research

Studying the physical condition of our refuge lands before, during, and after fires helps ensure long-term health for the ecosystem.  Monitoring is essential for adapting our management actions to the constantly changing conditions in our environment.  Research is critical to ensure we are using the best available science to make sound management decisions. 


Fire Science Information Cache

Here you will find summaries of references cited in our work, reports published by or for the refuge and links to other fire ecology resources.



On This Page...

Fire Ecology, An Introduction
Fire History in the Florida Keys
A Fire Ecology Snapshot: Pine Rocklands
Fire Monitoring and Research

A prescribed burn on Big Pine Key

A prescribed fire in the pine rocklands on Big Pine Key.
Photo: USFWS

Big Pine Partridge Pea flower

Some plant species, like the Big Pine Partridge Pea, are unique to the Lower Keys and flourish following a fire.   Without fire, certain habitats like Pine rocklands change into hardwood forests and the fire-dependant plants and animals unique to those habitats can be lost.
Photo: Keith Bradley

A Key Deer Buck foraging in a recently burned area on Big Pine Key

An endangered Key Deer forages after a fire in the Pine Rocklands. Photo: USFWS

Last updated: November 1, 2011