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Florida's prescribed burns benefit plants and animals, while keeping communities safe from wildfires

Flames on the grassy ground with a firefighter holding an extinguisher to the right of the photo.
Sarasota County
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Courtesy
A prescribed burn demonstration at Sarasota County’s Fire Fest in 2019.

After wildfires burned hundreds of homes and thousands of acres in Florida about 20 years ago, Sarasota County commissioners determined that prescribed burns were needed to keep communities safe.

Prescribed burns are an important tool for managing Florida's ecosystems, and in Florida, they are conducted year-round.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said on its website that burns during the spring and summer usually increase grasses and other non-woody species. And burns during the fall and winter help shrubby plants, like the saw palmetto. Multiple animal species are also fire-dependent, like the threatened gopher tortoise and the endangered Cape Sable Seaside sparrow.

Firefighter in full gear walking through ground fire putting it out with extinguisher.
Sarasota County
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Courtesy
Fire Fest is held at T. Mabry Carlton, Jr. Memorial Reserve, 1800 Mabry Carlton Parkway, Venice.

Jeff Weber, environmental specialist with Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, said fire is a great way to recycle nutrients into the ecosystem.

"The ash that's produced after burns is kind of a natural fertilizer, so you'll notice areas that have been burned kind of recover quickly after the fire,” he said. “Without burning, these areas will become really tall and dense, especially our flatwoods habitats. "

And that density could contribute to a wildfire. So, Jay Bailey, fire mitigation specialist with Sarasota County Fire Department, said prescribed burns make neighborhoods near natural areas safer.

"When we're actually burning, we burn what's called the understory, which is the shrubs and the grasses. It's lower in the canopy,” he said. “You’re not having the fire running up through the pine trees, like you'd see during a wildfire. What it's doing is basically removing that fuel that's on the ground. So that if the fire does occur, it's gonna be much more minimal."

After wildfires burned hundreds of homes and thousands of acres in Florida about 20 years ago, Sarasota County commissioners determined that prescribed burns were needed to keep communities safe.

Since then, Sarasota has done some of the most prescribed burning in the state, according to Bailey.

"Year-by-year, we've just kind of evolved into the point now where we're burning more than pretty much anywhere- not necessarily in number of acres, but number of burns," he said.

Bailey said about 60 burns were completed in Sarasota last fiscal year compared to the average of zero to 20 in other counties.

Sarasota targets areas of the county that have flatwoods, palmetto prairies, wetland and scrub habitats.

Sarasota County plans to hold a free educational event called Fire Fest on Saturday, Jan. 29 from 10am to 2pm at the T. Mabry Carlton, Jr. Memorial Reserve in Venice as part of Florida’s Prescribed Fire Awareness Week.

Firefighter using a high pressure hose over his shoulder to put out a fire.
Sarasota County
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Courtesy
"One of the main reasons we burn is ecological restoration, as well as fire management for hazard reduction," said Jay Bailey of Sarasota County Fire Department.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.