Fire specialists burn to create historical habitat

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By Kellie Parkin

As the sun dries the final traces of moisture left from a damp night, 10 prescribed fire specialists make their way into the meeting room at the Cedar Key and Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge headquarters for the morning briefing.

Everyone receives a map showing the designated 366-acre unit scheduled for burning today. The 24-hour spot forecast, including winds, humidity, and temperatures, is covered in detail. Daisy, the Refuge’s portable weather station, will be set up during the burn as well so the crew will be able to get up-to-the-minute weather throughout the day.

Assignments are passed out, safety procedures covered and objectives discussed. Today’s objectives are wildlife improvement and hazardous fuel reduction.

Wildlife such as fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, southeastern kestrels, and indigo snakes thrive when their habitats experience fire on a regular basis. Burning allows for a variety of new plants to grow, producing food and encouraging growth. Controlled burning also decreases the chance of devastating wildfires by reducing the dead wood and dead grass built up on the forest floor.

One of the main purposes of burning is to recreate natural habitat. “We’re trying to mimic historical fire,” says Jamie Farmer, who is training to become the Burn Boss, the highest qualification in prescribed burning. “Florida’s natural burn cycle is about every 3-4 years.”

Once the briefing is finished, the crew is ready for the test burn. Farmer reminds his crew to be safe and that fire can be unpredictable. “Remember, flexible is too rigid,” he says. “You’ve got you be fluid with it.”

Donning fireproof clothing, gloves, hard hats, and equipped with fire blankets, radios and plenty of water, the crew sets out.

Arriving at the test area, Anthony DiMaggio ignites his drip torch and touches it to the underbrush. Buddy Aguilera stands by with the water hose – just in case.

The fire is slow to start – at first. DiMaggio walks around the designated test area, followed by his trail of fire, and within moments the whole area is in flames. The smoke fills in fast, hindering visibility, and pieces of ash flutter through the air. The flames flare 20 feet high. Minutes later they are only a few feet tall and in some places just inches as the wind begins to clear away the smoke.

The rest of the crew is assisting in the test burn, documenting the fire’s reaction, and preparing for their turn.

The test run is successful. It’s time for the real burn.

This is when the crew splits up. Half of the group goes with Fire Boss Vic Doig and the rest stay with Farmer to continue the burn from the test area. In addition to burning, Doig’s crew will monitor CR 347 to ensure that the fire doesn’t leap and that smoke doesn’t create hazardous driving conditions.

Jaclyn Solodovnic, Jason Coates and George Pelt spread out with several yards between them as they border one edge of the area about to be burned. They light the tips of their drip torches and step into the forest. George Pelt sets the buffer line – a straight line of fire that will maintain the rest of the burn. The three specialists, now inside of the burn area, make their way to the other side, setting fire to the forest floor. They will continue in an organized, coordinated zigzag pattern until the entire area is aflame.

Some areas burn softer than others. Sudden infernos blaze in places, only to dissipate moments later. Other spots barely catch flame at all.

Fire Boss Doig says it’s good that it doesn’t burn the same way in every place.

“We shoot for variety and variability,” Doig says. “It’s always good to mix it up.” As Burn Boss, Doig is responsible for the entire operation.

As the fire spreads through the trees and fades away, it leaves a black residue behind on virtually everything.

“When people see charred vegetation on the side of the road after a controlled burn, it’s very misleading,” Farmer says. “The trees that belong have certain adaptations so it doesn’t hurt them.”

“And right here there will be a sea of wild flowers over the next month or two,” he adds.