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.
"We don't want to create problems," said Goddin of the importance of taking the necessary precautions.
The burns are permitted after the first frost, which is typically in late-November, and they can be conducted through early March, depending on the temperature and other weather conditions.
The wind conditions must be just about perfect. If wind is blowing anywhere near the direction of Highway 98, the results could be accident-causing. The winds must be strong enough so the fire can slowly creep back into thicker brush but not so strong that lit debris will jump over a boundary marking fire break, such as a road or the low-mowed grass around powerlines.
But planning a prescribed fire is not guesswork, and using computer programs, a burn boss can map out a projected smoke path using the wind speed and direction.
This is just how burn boss Shane McGowan chose a recent Monday to conduct a prescribed burn on 209 acres of Point Washington State Forest. With winds out of the northeast at 9 mph, conditions were just right. They repeated the process last week and burned 436 additional acres.
Even with all of the precautions taken, though, there is a possibility that a fire can jump a boundary. When that happens, "We put it out," said McGowan with a smile. If a fire gets out of the area of designation, the Fire Service has strategically situated plows that can create a break of sand around the fire, to cut it off from the other brush.
On Monday the fires were put down using handheld or ATV-strapped drip torches around 10:20 a.m., and McGowan and his crew had the fires stamped out by 4 p.m.
"We do this so the plumes you see are not wildfire," said McGowan of fighting the risk of wildfire using prescribed fires. "We're really thorough ... We don't just light a match."
It doesn't take long for a fire to run out of fuel, leaving behind blackened bushes, palmettos, and tree trunks. But that is all fleeting, and the initial unsightliness is short-lived.
"You come back here in about three months, and this will be the prettiest part of the forest," said Goddin.
For more information about the benefits of prescribed burns, visit www.goodfires.org or www.floridaforestservice.com.