Safe and sound burning
Service’s prescribed burn on busy Florida coast helps head off potential catastrophic wildfires
Hobe Sound, Florida — The well-to-do on Jupiter Island wanted the wildlife refuge burned and who was to say no? Not the federal biologists at the refuge across the Intracoastal Waterway. They were eager to accommodate their neighbors and restore the pine scrub habitat.
But the stakes — and potential dangers — were high. A prescribed fire, by its nature, is carefully planned and executed to minimize mishaps. Yet, winds shift. Embers fly. Smoke swirls. And the best-laid plans of burn bosses can go awry in the blink of an eye.
Hobe Sound was no ordinary refuge either. The targeted area was sandwiched between U.S. 1, the Dixie Highway, power lines and a water treatment plant. The margin for error was very small. Plus, the folks on Jupiter Island — one of the wealthiest communities in America — didn’t want black smoke wafting over their homes.
Finally, after months of preparation, the 17-acre plot was burned in March 2018.
“It was tricky, all or nothing,” said Christine Eastwick who manages the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. “But it went really well. It burned, but it didn’t go crazy.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prescribes about 300 fires a year in the Southeast. Most are set to rid the land of combustible underbrush near towns, subdivisions and industrial parks. But they’re also lit to rejuvenate habitats that benefit threatened or endangered species.
“What you’re seeing in California is a catastrophe, but it’s a good example of why a solid, well-planned burn control program is necessary,” said Gene Rauth, the manager of the Town of Jupiter Island. “If the Fish and Wildlife Service or the state of Florida was not doing controlled burns in our area we would have similar problems.”
Good stewards of the land
Joseph and Permelia Reed and friends bought land in Hobe Sound and Jupiter Island in the early 1930s in search of “a quiet life … totally unlike booming Palm Beach” 25 miles to the south. Their exclusive winter getaway for the Northern rich added land on the far side of the Indian River to ensure pristine views.
Serenity, though, didn’t preclude extravagance. Mansions sprung up owned by men named Ford, Heinz, Mellon and Doubleday. U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush and wife Dorothy entertained son George Herbert Walker Bush and grandson George W. Bush. Celine Dion had a spread with a backyard waterpark. Tiger Woods’ home featured a golf course.
The Town of Jupiter Island was once listed as the wealthiest small-town enclave in America. It now ranks second with an average home value of $5 million, according to Businessweek. (Sagaponack, New York is number one.)
In the late ‘60s and early 70s, the Reeds and others in the Jupiter Island community conveyed hundreds of acres to the Service. Nathaniel Reed, who died recently, carried on the family’s environmental tradition with distinction. As a boy, he fished the Indian River for sea trout and bluefish and the Atlantic for pompano and croaker. He studied the island’s birds and butterflies disappearing for all-day jaunts through dunes and marshes.
Reed served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for fish, wildlife and national parks under presidents Nixon and Ford. He co-authored the Endangered Species Act. Back home in Florida, Reed advised six governors on environmental issues, served on the South Florida Water Management District and the Everglades Foundation. The New York Times, in a July obituary, labeled Reed a “champion of Florida’s environment.”
Reed, who lived across Indian River from the refuge, wanted it burned. He was all too familiar with wildfires.
More than 120 acres burned in December 2010 threatening 80 homes at the Hobe Sound Golf Club and a neighboring community. A 55-acre fire two years later neared the town’s Poinciana Gardens community. And, in March 2014, a 90-acre wildfire jumped Florida’s Turnpike, forcing its closure for several hours.
When a small fire last year on the 1,100-acre refuge came too close to the town’s water treatment plant, Reed wanted something done.
“Nathaniel would always say we don’t want to have a catastrophic outcome here, something that would endanger the health, safety and welfare — or worse,” recalled Rauth. “But you’ve got to pick your time and do it right. Mr. Reed made it clear that, to be good stewards of the land, you have be involved. You can’t take a hands-off approach.”
Heading off catastrophe
Hobe Sound is a schizophrenic refuge. The 3.5 mile beachfront portion connects to a state park and, combined, comprises the largest section of undeveloped beach in southeastern Florida. It is also considered one of the prime sea turtle nesting areas in the Southeast.
The mainland portion, across the Intracoastal, consists of rare sand pine scrub habitat which once covered large swaths of central and coastal Florida only to disappear under the farmer’s plow and the developer’s bulldozer. Its mix of sandy patches and low-slung vegetation — sand pine, myrtle oaks, saw palmetto, Florida rosemary — across dunes and ridges is typically ideal habitat for two dozen threatened and endangered species.
Federally threatened scrub-jays, at-risk gopher tortoises, and endangered Lakela’s mint and four-petal pawpaws, once flourished on Hobe Sound and neighboring pine scrubs. Florida’s scrub-jay population has declined 90 percent over the last century.
“Scrub-jays don’t like trees above six feet tall where hawks can see them from,” said Eastwick, the refuge manager. “There are a lot [of species] that could potentially be in our scrub, but it’s so overgrown we haven’t seen them in a while.”
Fire routinely burned the vegetation, renourished the soil and bolstered wildlife. Development, though, has wiped out most scrub territory. Roads, railroads and buildings act as firebreaks keeping the flames from reaching scrub pockets. Fear of fire, and liability concerns, further curtailed burning.
The feds, the state of Florida, The Nature Conservancy and private citizens prescribe fire for 1 million acres each year. At Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles south of Hobe Sound, Rolf Olson aims to burn 20,000 acres annually. Restoring fire-dependent Everglades habitat is one reason; clearing out brush that could fuel a disastrous fire in Boynton Beach, Wellington, Boca Raton or other adjacent communities is another.
Olson, the Loxahatchee manager, recalled a 2004 wildfire that scorched 4,000 acres. It fizzled when it came up against an area that had been carefully burned earlier in the summer.
“It was a real monster. It jumped the levee and the canal,” Olson said. “If not for the prescribed burn, it probably would’ve burned the entire refuge. It had a lot of potential to be catastrophic.”
The waiting game
Firefighters at Hobe Sound took no chances. They set out to burn 17 acres along a triangle-shaped plot bordered by U.S. 1 and the Old Dixie Highway. They were under no illusions.
“It’s challenging because either scrub doesn’t burn or it burns real intensely,” said Tom Ledbetter, a fire management officer with the Service in Florida. “And when it does burn can you keep it on the refuge? And how do you keep smoke on the refuge?”
Planning meetings with local, state and federal partners began before Christmas 2017. A fire break surrounding the triangle was carved into the sandy soil with bulldozers and skid steers. Backup fire breaks were added as security. Any brush within 20 feet of the power line alongside U.S. 1 was cleared away. Tall sand pines were cut down and left to dry to help spread the fire.
Refuge staff invited neighbors to a prescribed fire meeting at the refuge. They also visited close-in neighbors like Joe Hamilton whose unique, octagon-shaped home, nicknamed the Dome House, sits perilously close to the burn area.
“I was pretty concerned. I’ve seen wildfires before and I know what can happen,” said Hamilton who’ll soon quit Massachusetts for full-time living at Hobe Sound. “But these guys were very explicit and articulate and they put us at ease.”
Wildland firefighters were called in from Okefenokee, Avon Park, Merritt Island, Tyndall, Everglades and Jonathan Dickinson parks, refuges and military bases. Hobe Sound alerted local media and took to social media to warn of the impending fire. Reverse 911 calls went out to neighbors living within a mile of the burn site. Firefighters cut a firebreak around Hamilton’s house and, eventually, positioned a fire truck in his driveway and turned sprinklers on nearby vegetation.
And then they waited. For the weather — precipitation chances and timing, wind direction and speed, air temperature, relative humidity — to be just right. And for the Florida Forest Service to grant them a burn permit.
They applied for the permit at 8 a.m on March 2. They started burning at 10:30 a.m. Time, though, was limited. The ideal northwesterly wind — which blew the smoke out over the Atlantic — was due to shift by 1 p.m.
Firefighters armed with drip-torches dropped fire in straight lines across the targeted triangle, section by section. It burned hot and high in places, low and slow in others. Sandy spots inhibited the flames; dead trees fueled it. By noon, though, the wind shifted — and carried the smoke over U.S. 1. Visibility dropped to less than 500 feet. The northbound lane was shut down for about an hour.
Still, the fire was a success. Three-fourths of the scrub was burned off. More than half of the tall sand pines succumbed. And tons of wildfire fuel went up in smoke.
Soon, the scrub habitat rebounded with palmettos, rosemary and scrub oaks pushing through the ashes.
“All in all we’re pretty happy with this burn,” Ledbetter said. “It will re-sprout and when it gets to be six-feet high again we’ll have to burn. One fire will not get us to where we want to be.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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