Written by Terri Mashour, author of Backcountry Trails of Florida: A Guide to Hiking Florida’s Water Management Districts
I am a Florida fire ecologist by trade. I worked for almost ten years at the St. Johns River Water Management District and my job was a Land Resource Specialist. As a part of that job, I conducted prescribed burns and responded to wildfires. A prescribed burn is where trained fire professionals set fire to a block of forest under set conditions of weather and according to safety protocols. For each block we determined how much wind was needed, how dry it was, what the weather was going to be like later that day, what the weather had been like, and what safe conditions were for controlling the fire and keeping fire staff safe.
We wore special protective gear for fires in the woods—tall boots, helmets, protective glasses and gloves, and clothing material called Nomex which repels fire to a certain extent. We had a special fire shelter that we could climb into in case of emergency. We wore radios so we could be in contact with other staff working the fire.
I set fire to the ground on foot, driving an ATV, and even on horseback, sometimes alongside helicopters. We put a special blend of diesel fuel and gas in a can called a drip torch. It poured to a wick that we lit on fire. When the fuel dripped from the can, it would drop fire on the ground to start and move the fire. We worked as a team—like a military operation—to control the fire, keep everyone safe, and accomplish the goals for the forest.
Many times our lands received lightning strikes that caused wildfires. We would put on our gear and jump in our brush trucks that carried 300–500 gallons of water—and we also brought our bulldozers. We responded to the fire with Florida Forest Service professionals. We mapped the fire, identified structures nearby, and made a plan to put fire lines on the ground and put water on the fire. Sometimes I spent entire nights on fires and on many occasions I worked on putting out one fire for weeks at a time, adding more and more water to eventually put it out. It was an exciting job and I loved with my whole heart taking care of Florida’s forests.
You may think it seems crazy that land managers would do this. But in fact, we are taking care of the land exactly the way Florida plants, trees and wildlife evolved to survive over hundreds—if not millions—of years. Without fire, the plants would cease to exist and there would be catastrophic wildfires like the forest fires we hear about out West. You know how each summer in Florida we get those afternoon thunderstorms every day? Well, lightning typically comes with those storms every day. Long ago, when lightning hit the ground in Florida, the ground set on fire. The fires were allowed to run and move and go out when they reached a body of water, like the St. Johns River or the ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway. Fires every summer meant that bushes and shrubs were killed back every year before they grew again. There was not much to burn, so flames were probably only knee high or a bit higher in some places. If you can imagine a peaceful burn, completely opposite of a wildfire, that’s what it was like.
Yearly burns meant the trees and plants had to adapt to survive the fires or they wouldn’t exist. And it is so cool how they did adapt! Gopher tortoises build burrows so when fire comes, they crawl underground in soft soil. They welcome snakes, frogs, rabbits, and many more species into their homes, or their abandoned homes. Bartram’s Ixia, a rare purple flower, refuses to bloom until fire has come through. We may not see that flower for many years until we apply fire. The longleaf pine, which was once everywhere in the Southeast, won’t open its pine cones without smoke. It also won’t grow up into a tree until fire has come—but then it shoots up seven feet in just one year to get past the next year’s fire flames. It has long, protective pine needles that protect its growing parts from the fire. Super cool stuff!
But the opposite happens without fire. Plants adapted to fire will stop growing or blooming. Some bushes and shrubs will grow out of control. Gopher tortoises won’t find grasses to eat in the shade of the bushes so they won’t be able to live in those places anymore, and neither can any of the species that use their burrows. And beautiful plants like the Bartram’s Ixia won’t bloom and make new plants.
Fire is part of Florida. Today fire managers mimic the fire patterns of the past by doing controlled burns to prevent the devastating wildfires we see here at times and out West. If we manage our natural areas and private lands with fire, or if we mow so the brush does not become tall and overgrown, it will be much easier to prevent or put out wildfire. Our wildlife and plants can continue to grow and thrive.
Florida has some really neat natural resources. By managing them correctly, we can prevent long-term wildfires, protect lands for our wildlife, ensure we have enough water for our wetlands, and continue to enjoy beautiful conservation areas in the Florida backcountry.
Terri Mashour is the author of Backcountry Trails of Florida: A Guide to Hiking Florida’s Water Management Districts. With her sister, she cofounded www.fun4firstcoastkids.com, and she reviews the top places to hike, camp, and get out into nature in and around Jacksonville for the website’s blog. She worked almost a decade in Florida’s forests, swamps, sandhills, and prairies as a land management planner and land management specialist with the St. Johns River Water Management District. She has participated in almost 100 burns or wildfires.