It's burning season for South Walton

Wildfire walton

"It's going real well right now," said McGowan looking over a parcel that had finished burning. He finished a burn on a 209-acre parcel within five hours, with conditions that were just right.

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 04:48 PM.

A little fire in the forest may be just what the doctor ordered.

Though a common reaction to a plume of smoke rising from the forest is one of shock and terror, the smoke is not necessarily an indication of an emergency. In fact, if it is caused by a prescribed burn by Florida Forest Service, it is actually a good thing.

"Prescribed fire is a safe way to apply what would normally be a natural process," said Brian Goddin with FFS, referring to pre-Colonial Florida, when lightning strikes would help the forest "replenish itself with fire." These fires were essential to reduce the density of vegetation, add nutrients to the soil, and keep the forest thin enough to reduce the risk of a forest-razing wildfire. "It's just a natural thing that has to occur."

Today, with much infrastructure in the area and the potential for developmental devastation, FFS has taken matters into its own hands and holds wintertime prescribed burns to mimic the three- to five-year cycle of replenishment that would occur naturally.

The fire set by drip torches are low to the ground and won't hurt the trees, according to Goddin. The most important thing these fires do is burn back the scrub brush and potentially flammable palmettos. When the scrub brush and palmettos are burned back, wildfires lack the fuel to burn out of control and devastate the more mature trees, as well as infrastructure.

"Once it runs out of fuel ... it can't burn anymore," said Goddin.

Ideally, the Forest Service aims to burn a parcel every three years to keep the brush under control. The hope is that an entire forest will be given its healing prescription of fire in that rotation. Because wind and weather conditions must be just right before FFS conducts a burn, however, the state has a small window to complete burnings on each parcel.

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