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A Controlled Burn Sparked A Wildfire, But Can Also Help Stop One

Two men in yellow jackets walk through a smokey forest.
Tall Timbers Facebook page

Following an announcement from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam that the Franklin County wildfire was sparked by a prescribed burn, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is suspending its prescribed burn program. But  prescribed burns are an important part of preserving habitats for native plants and animals.

Kevin Hiers is a Wildland Fire Scientist at Tall Timbers Research Station.

We generally recognize now that across the United States We need more fire not less. Almost all forested eco systems, particularly in the South East or Eastern United States require fire to maintain forest structure, bio diversity and eco system services,” Hiers says.

And beyond that Hiers says prescribed burns help to stop the spread of uncontrolled wild fires.

“You know the state of Florida gets as many lightning strikes as any place on earth and so we have plenty of ignitions between that the tourism economy. And prescribed fire reduces the fuel load. It keeps the underbrush down,” Hiers says.

It also means wildfire fighters can stop the blaze more easily if a wildfire is started. But David Godwin Coordinator for the Southern Fire Exchange says there’s more to learn about prescribed fires. He joined a group of scientists and land managers earlier this year at Tall Timbers.

“There’s a lot of research currently and historically on wildfires—understanding how wildfires behave and their effects, predicting and that sort of thing. But what’s interesting about this group of folks this week is that they’re working on trying to understand prescribed fires. These are the fires that we use,” Godwin says.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has launched an investigation to understand how a burn it ordered is linked to a fire that ultimately damaged dozens of homes in Franklin County. In a release the FWC says it is working to ensure all safety protocols were followed and to check into whether any safety updates are needed.

Experts say it will likely be months before a full report on the fire and any contributing factors is available. In the meantime, the agency has suspended its prescribed burn program. But FWC is not the only agency that administers prescribed burns. Last week, the Department of Environmental Protection celebrated an all-time record for the number of acres covered by prescribed burns it managed this year. DEP conducted more than 390 prescribed burns at 67 state parks.

This story was produced with assistance of WFSU-TV ecology producer Rob Diaz de Villegas.  You can learn more about the role of fire in north Florida ecosystems from his stories on the WFSU Ecology Blog:

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 |

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