USA — This time of year, reports of wildfires encroaching on urban areas often take top billing on our local news. These uncontrolled fires are scary for homeowners as they can present a real threat to homes, property and even lives.
Few people recognize, however, the importance of fire to our native habitats and the need for periodic burning to increase plant diversity, reduce fuel loads and create new foraging space for wildlife. At Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, prescribed fires are used as a tool to maintain our natural ecosystem and to prevent uncontrolled wildfires from destroying critical habitats.
Fire is a key part of the natural cycle of life here in South Florida. Our marked dry season coupled with thunderstorms that create cloud-to-ground lightning are the perfect recipe for sparking wildfires. In a natural system, these fires burn through understory vegetation relatively quickly, leaving pines and other large trees unharmed. Removing this vegetation reduces shading on the ground and opens up the understory for new plant growth and wildlife use.
Periodic fires increase plant diversity and stimulate growth in many plant species. Birds, deer and small mammals are often abundant in recently burned habitats, taking advantage of fresh new forage. These species are well-adapted to living in fire-prone habitats, moving out of harms way ahead of the fire line with little fire-related mortality. Fires in natural systems also tend to burn relatively small areas, creating a habitat mosaic that provides refuges for these animals. While fire does disrupt some bird nesting, many species living in these habitats (like bobwhite quail and turkeys) are adapted to re-nest within the same season.
The spread of development into inland natural areas, coupled with humans instinctual fear of fire, has led to decades of wildfire suppression efforts here in Florida. This suppression has allowed vegetation to overgrow, creating an unnaturally high understory fuel load in many natural areas. This high fuel load allows wildfires to burn larger areas, burn hotter, and to reach up into the canopy and damage large trees. Simply put, our efforts to suppress fires over the years have made the present-day potential for larger, more destructive wildfires much greater.
Natural resource managers throughout Florida, including Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, routinely conduct prescribed fires, intentionally-set fires that are meant to mimic wildfires, for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of natural ecosystems and minimizing negative effects of uncontrolled wildfires. Prescribed fires are conducted in designated areas (bounded by plowed fire lines) on days with weather conditions that allow fire crews to maintain control of the burn.
In addition to ignition crews, trained fire suppression crews are also on-hand to keep the burn within the designated area. Well-managed habitats are burned on multi-year intervals that mimic natural systems. Recently-burned areas begin showing signs of new, green growth almost immediately, often attracting deer and other foraging species within hours of the smoke clearing.
If you are lucky enough to visit Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary following one of our prescribed burns, keep an eye out for the abundance of plants and wildlife that flourish in recently burned areas. Months after a fire, scorched tree trunks are often the only sign of fire that remains, as the ecosystem prospers after this natural disturbance event.