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Prescribed fire in the Panacea Unit of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge June 2013. Photo by Jennifer Hinckley, USFWS.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge conducts precision prescribed fire at its wildland fire education site

While the fire crew at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge regularly applies prescribed fire treatments on hundreds of acres at a time, they also scientifically maintain an area of the forest near the visitor center to show the public why prescribed fire is needed.

Scott’s Plots Educational Fire Management site is located at the end of a spur trail off the visitor center trail at St. Marks, which is in the Florida panhandle near Apalachicola National Forest. An eight-acre site has been divided into four two-acre plots. Prescribed fire is applied to three of the two-acre plots. The fourth plot is a control plot which is never burned.

Each plot has a date range and frequency for the prescribed fire to be applied. The Winter Plot is burned in December in the odd years. The Spring Plot is burned in April in the even years. The Summer Plot is burned in July in the even years. All three plots are burned every two years.

A firefighter in protective gear starts a blaze with a drip torch.
Dale Shiver used a drip torch to light a prescribed fire at St. Marks. Photo by Tom MacKenzie, USFWS.

The difference is amazing. The two-acre plot that isn’t burned is an impenetrable morass of thick palmetto, scraggly underbrush, and choked pines mixed with hardwoods. Dead brush festoons the unburned plot.

The other plots are clearly more open, free of deadfall, and exhibit a lush green understory. This young vegetation in the burned areas supports wildlife as a healthy part of their diet.

St. Marks has a strong record of conducting regular prescribed fires to reduce undergrowth, and manage habitat for wildlife, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and frosted flatwoods salamander. Both species require fire on the landscape to survive. Fire helps remove tangled underbrush. Last year 23,062 acres were burned on the 72,000-acre refuge.

An added benefit of regular planned and controlled fires t is the more open canopy, and increased visibility across the landscape so that visitors can take photographs and watch the local animals and migrating birds. Prescribed fires also provide mobility-impaired, youth and other hunters an opportunity to pursue elusive deer.

A whitetail deer looks directly into the camera.
Deer at St. Marks. Photo by Tom MacKenzie, USFWS.

“We apply the same rigorous safety principles on a small burn as we do on a larger one,” said Fire Management Officer Greg Titus. “Of course, the larger ones can be more time consuming and complex; but, these small ones help us fine tune our teamwork.”

On December 7, 2015, the eight-person team conducted a full planning briefing, and used the temperature, wind, weather, and habitat factors to plan for the small burn. They also used the same safety planning, communications notifications, and emergency action planning as with larger treatments.

They initially used drip torches filled with a 7030 mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline to light a test fire on the downwind side of the plot to see if their objectives would be fulfilled and the fire would burn as expected.

It burned as planned.

Given the “Go” by Firing Boss Meagan Bieber, the team spread out to monitor the blaze and the smoke. On her command, a two-person fire team composed of Brian Pippin and Dale Shiver walked along the downwind side directly adjacent to a fire break that had been refreshed that morning by Fire Equipment Operator Willy Lindsey.

The igniting flames from the drip torch reached the edge of the firebreak and pushed back into the unburned grass and palmetto. As Brian made his first transect, parallel to, and about 20 feet from, Dale’s first ignition line, the flames started to join together, actually changing the direction of the very minor breeze on that cool Florida afternoon. The smoked wafted upwards, fanned by the gathering heat from the two lines of man-made flames.

The torch-bearers then walked through the burn unit contained within firebreaks and continued to repeat the lines until they reached the end of the plot. The blaze burned as planned, and the smoke acted as planned, moving away from the nearby visitor center and office.

An additional team of two firefighters equipped with a fully loaded wildland fire-fighting engine was prepared to respond to any fire that jumped the lines. None did, but they extinguished some of the smoldering pines as an added precaution to prevent any possibility of a getaway fire.

Lindsey was ready to snuff out any outliers, but he had accomplished his mission before the fire was even set, encircling the two-acre plot with a nice firebreak, which will double as a trail for visitors.

By the time the fire team reached the end of the burn area, their first line of flames was already flickering out, having burned underbrush and grass, consumed dead palmetto leaves to leave smoldering ash to fertilize and allow fire-dependent grasses and shrubs to regenerate. Those new grasses will start popping up after the first few rains, followed by tasty buds of regenerating shrubs like gallberry and high bush blueberry. The deer and other wildlife will swing back into the area to chow down on those tasty, nutritious morsels within the first month or two.

In six months, rainfall and subsequent plant growth will obscure most of the fire scorch on the trees and woody plants. Thus, the prescribed fire is leaving a healthier pine stand which will show people why fire is important in the forests and ecosystems. It will show why fire is necessary for Florida and all the other fire dependent habitats in the nation.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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