GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Assistant professor Raelene Crandall walks her 18 students into Austin Cary Forest, part of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, where they will set a fire. Crandall and the students stand out in their lemon yellow shirts, forest green pants, leather boots and gloves, and hard hats—all fireproof.
“Wildfire season is starting early this year, because we’re seeing a warmer, drier spring,” said Crandall, who teaches fire ecology in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation. “Experts predict an unusually bad wildfire season this year with the dry conditions and prescribed burns may help lower that number.”
The students check the plow line, which is used to contain a fire to a particular area and then start a fire along the edge. They stand back as plants begin to burn and the fire gradually progresses. “If we don’t conduct prescribed burns, we will get larger, often catastrophic fires that threaten families and structures,” Crandall explained.
Too much vegetation above the soil contributes to wildfires, Crandall said. “Vegetation builds up and that’s more fuel for the fire. So when lit by accident, arson or by lightning, the fires become more extreme, are harder to control, and may even enter urban areas,” she said. “Smoke from fires is also a problem. It causes less visibility on roads and respiratory problems.”
The controlled fires not only help lower the number of wildfires, but are also good for the ecosystem, Crandall said. Prescribed fires promote native plants and animals that need the nutrients released from fires or the open area that is created, she said.
“If we don’t have areas that are burned frequently, then we will not have certain species that depend on fire, such as the gopher tortoise, the red cockaded woodpecker and many native plants,” Crandall said. “Plants regenerate very quickly after fire, because most of the plant structure is below ground, holding its nutrients. There is less competition with neighboring plants when we burn, and fire fertilizes the soil.”
With less competing vegetation, plants get more light for photosynthesis after a fire, Crandall said. “We used to depend on Native Americans and lighting strikes to maintain the ecosystem. But with roads, highways and buildings, fires have a lot of barriers that stop them, preventing them from traveling long distances. It is now up to us to light prescribed fires,” she said.
After a briefing with the Austin Cary Forest burn boss, students learn what to expect. He assigns roles to different groups, and tells students where they can find the safety zone and equipment. Each leader is given a radio for communication.
“We light a test fire to make sure the fire is doing what we predicted it will do. Then, we light a black line, extending our plow line, because when something burns and it’s black it will not reburn,” Crandall said. Students lights the fire against the wind, and the fire slowly creeps forward. After a few minutes, students light strips of fire to slowly move the fire through the burn area.
Once the area is burned, Crandall and the students check the perimeter and spray water on any smoldering plant material to make sure the fire is contained. “We take no chance that anything will move into an unburned area. But, downed logs and other large debris near the center of the burn area may smolder for a week or more,” she said.
Crandall loves to share her passion for the environment and the benefits of controlled fires with her students. “It’s amazing to teach students how to control something that is often perceived as uncontrollable. You can burn a savanna and two months later it’s blooming with flowers,” she said. “The regeneration is amazing and you realize how important controlled fire is to the natural habitat.”
By: Beverly James, 352-273-3566, email@example.com