by James Patterson
It was the growing season in Florida, May or June, and we were conducting a prescribed burn in one of the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and wiregrass (Aristida stricta) ecosystems on the forests. It was a great burn with all objectives being met: ensuring, public and firefighter safety and maintaining the historic fire regime for ecological benefit.
The burn was in the final stages when the dispatch office informed us of a wildfire nearby. I was one of the resources released from the burn to respond to the wildfire. It was in an area we had been managing for longleaf pine restoration with fire, chemical treatments, and chopping to control off-site species like sand pine (Pinus clausa), and quite similar to the area from the prescribed fire in the morning. The understory was predominately wiregrass, the over-story was longleaf pine, and we expected the predicted fire behavior to be similar to the predictions for the prescribed fire.
The Incident Commander (IC) received a weather forecast from dispatch, which was similar to the predicted weather for the prescribed burn. The IC decided to take an indirect attack strategy and burn out the area from established fire lines, which were roads and trails that surrounded the area, and thus limit the suppression impacts on the forest.
This strategy was excellent as fire exclusion, a by-product of fire suppression, was identified as a leading cause in the degradation of longleaf pine ecosystems (Noss et al. 1995). Fire is one of the primary management tools that helped achieve restoration goals and objectives in this area. Without the continued use of prescribed fire to mimic the historic fire regime in this area, a burn out would not have been possible. But as I established the burnout line, which also protected private property across the road, I heard a man complaining from across the street: “The government is choosing to burn the woods on a day like this!”
I am not sure why he was mad that we were using a wildfire to meet restoration goals while also suppressing the fire. I wanted to turn and tell him — fire is essential to these ecosystems. Fire in the growing season, the time wiregrass flowers, promotes the reproduction of wiregrass (Rodriguez 2011; Cleckley 1996; Hoyle 2005). Wiregrass is a species that does not spread rapidly, it regenerates and the density increases when fire occurs every 2-4 years (Cleckley 1996; Mackowiak 2008; USFWS 2010). Similarly to wiregrass, longleaf pine, which has been reduced by over 98% from the over 90 million acres it historically occupied, needs fire on a 1-10 year interval (Giltzenstein and Hermann 2008; Oxford University Press 2004; Kush and Varner 2009), with the fire interval varying by geographical location.
Many researchers and prescribed fire practitioners, such as the USFWS (2010), state that without fire both species will be lost. Fire, which maintains this habitat, is also critical for many wildlife species including red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises. There are over 30 fauna and flora on the threatened and endangered species list that depend on the longleaf pine ecosystem; fire is the most important ecological process that maintains these ecosystems (USFWS 2010). Fire exclusion in longleaf pine ecosystems will cause a decline in the species diversity of the understory vegetation (Kush and Varner 2009).
These are the facts I wanted to share with the gentleman. To inform him that we were taking advantage of an opportunity to restore the publics’ forest to the vibrant and pristine conditions of the past. I wanted to stop, walk across the street, and explain, but I had a mission to accomplish and missed an opportunity to explain the facts to one of our most important stakeholders: the public.
In 1899 John Muir declared to Gifford Pinchot that precipitation, temperature, and fire were all important factors in maintaining the integrity of forests (Kush and Varner 2009). Many people are unaware of facts we learned over 100 years ago. As fire practitioners, we need to act on our opportunities to tell our stories. So I’m sorry I didn’t turn and explain. A fire burns and we work the flames. But next time I hope to find a way to cross the road, to understand and defuse his anger.
Cleckley, William, O. 1996. Ecosystem Restoration Workshop. Florida Institute of Phosphate Research and Society for Ecological Restoration. <http://fipr1.state.fl.us/fipr/fipr1.nsf/0/299f0a69d1488c3b85256b2f0054bebc/$FILE/03-000-143Final.pdf>. Accessed 3 March 2013.
Giltzenstein, J., S. Hermann. 2008. Historic Fire Regimes of Longleaf Pine. The Encyclopedia of Southern Fire Science. < http://www.forestencyclopedia.net/p/p225>. Accessed 22 October 2012.
Hoyle, Zoe. 2005. Revitalizing Wiregrass at Fort Gordon. U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Research Station Headquarters. < http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/compass/summer2005/04fortgordonfull.htm>. Accessed 4 March 2013.
Kush, John, J.M. Varner. 2009. Restoring Fire to the Longleaf Pine Forest. Fire Science Brief 30: 1-6.
Mackowiak, Cheryl. 2008. Burning Questions Addressed in Wiregrass Production. University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation. < http://www.sfrc.ufl.edu/CFEOR/docs/CFEOR_Updates_110708.pdf>. Accessed 2 March 2013.
Noss, Reed, F., E.T. LaRoe III, J. M. Scott. 1995. Endangered Ecosystems of the United States:Â A Preliminary Assessment of Loss and Degradation. National Biological Service. <http://biology.usgs.gov/pubs/ecosys.htm>. Accessed 22 October 2012.
Oxford University Press. 2004. Fire Ecology. Oxford Dictionary of Georgraphy. <http://www.answers.com/topic/fire-ecology>. Accessed 22 October 2012.
Rodriguez, Emily. 2011. Maximizing Wiregrass (Aristida Stricta) Reproduction for Restoration Purposes: Effect of Growing Season Month of Burn on Seed Production. University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation. <http://sfrc.ufl.edu/cfeor/docs/updates/CFEOR_Updates_021111.pdf>. Accessed 12 March 2013.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2010. The Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass Ecosystem. Department of the Interior. < http://www.fws.gov/carolinasandhills/longleaf.html>. Accessed 2 March 2013.