Why do you burn the refuge?
refuge staff utilizes fire to maintain healthy native vegetation communities on
the refuge. Fire is set under "prescribed" conditions. These
prescribed burns are only conducted if the winds, temperature, humidity and
moisture levels are within a designated range and the refuge has adequate staff
and equipment. By conducting burns under particular conditions, the staff can
control the location, intensity, and duration of the fire. In Florida, fire is
an important part of the natural ecology of many vegetated communities, such
as pinelands and wet prairies. We often say that these communities are “fire
dependent” whereby fire is needed to maintain these communities and prevent the
encroachment of invasive shrubs such as wax myrtle and willows. Fire also
reduces the hazardous buildup of woody debris which can fuel larger, more destructive, wildfires.
How is prescribed fire different from wildfire?
A prescribed fire is planned and executed under very specific conditions to control intensity and severity that targets ground vegetation. By contrast, a wildfire is unplanned, uncontrolled and usually intense. Wildfires in Florida cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Prescribed burning seeks to accomplish the goals that naturally occurring wildfire accomplished prior to human influence. Prescribed burns are conducted during two separate times of the year. In south Florida deer usually drop their fawns from December through March, so prescribed burns in the winter create new growth that is tender and easily digestible so mothers have nutritious food to meet the demands of their nursing fawns. Prescribed burns are also conducted in the late spring and summer when does are generally bred. This ensures better nutrition for pregnant deer and their developing fetuses. But don’t think these fires are raging out of control and killing all living creatures. Prescribed fires are often very slow moving and produce flames perhaps only a few feet high. Deer are often observed feeding just feet from the flames, moving out of the way as necessary. Fires are, in fact, designed to burn off the undergrowth, curb the growth of shrubbery, without killing the canopy trees. Ash is recycled back into the soil and spurs new growth within a day or two. Within a couple of weeks a carpet of new grass and forbs (leafy vegetation) are everywhere, and so are the deer.
Burns are conducted on a planned 4 year rotation. However,
if factors prevent a burn from taking place one year, that unit will be burned the following year. As such, each unit
is burned every 3-5 years.
What are the benefits of prescribed burning?
There are numerous benefits to prescribed burning. Burning
reduces accumulated fuels which reduces the risk of intense fire. It also helps
to control encroaching vegetation, such as wax myrtle, that grows quickly and
can overtake other vegetation. Prescribed burning thins the forest making it
healthier and more easily accessible by animals. Increased sunlight from
thinning of encroaching shrubs allows for more regeneration of pines and
plants used as food for wildlife. (From Top to Bottom: Pre-burn, immediately post-burn, two-month post-burn)
What does prescribed fire have to do with panthers?
Prescribed fire has more to do with deer management than it has to do with panthers. Deer love to eat the new growth of grasses and forbs that occur after a fire. As the majority of a Florida panther's diet consists of deer, any management activity that improves the deer population also improves the panther population. One of the goals of prescribed burning is to thin areas of dense, fast-growing shrubby vegetation which out-compete grasses and forbs for sunlight, space and soil nutrients. Increasing the amount and quality of preferred vegetation for the deer population subsequently benefits the panthers. Radio tracking studies show that panthers frequent recently burned areas and that female panthers will often have their kittens in a unit that was recently burned.
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