Chris Reed, land management manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Setting prescribed fires in controlled settings can reduce the risk of wildfires burning out of control, as many Floridians witnessed during the state’s wildfire emergency in 2017. Chris Reed, land management manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, explained why the District’s prescribed burn efforts are critical to keeping Florida’s ecosystem in balance.

Q: What is a prescribed burn?

A: A prescribed burn, also known as a prescribed fire or a controlled burn, is a fire intentionally ignited by land managers to meet specific land management goals. The burns follow a written prescription which outlines: the defined fire treatment area, goals of the burn, specific weather conditions that are required, the tactics staff will use and the resources that are required to conduct the burn. Additionally, a smoke management map is prepared to identify smoke sensitive areas, which are places where smoke from prescribed fires is intolerable, like schools and hospitals.

Q: Why does the Southwest Florida Water Management District conduct prescribed burns?

A: Nearly every natural community in Florida is shaped by fire. Plants and other vegetation accumulate quickly in these natural systems if they are not burned routinely. District land managers conduct prescribed burns to reduce this vegetative fuel buildup, which decreases the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Other common prescribed fire objectives include promoting plant diversity, enhancing or maintaining the character and condition of wildlife habitat, site preparation for planting pine trees and maintaining access for public recreation.

Q: How does the District plan prescribed burns?

A: District land management staff takes great care to analyze the condition of District properties and identify the most appropriate areas to burn, as well as the best time of year and under what conditions to meet the burn goals. Staff uses a geographic information system database, natural community data and site knowledge to develop an annual burn plan for District-managed conservation lands. Land managers determine what areas to burn based on habitat type, time since the last fire on that property and weather conditions.

Q: What are the benefits of a prescribed burn?

A: There are many benefits to burning, most importantly reducing the risk of a catastrophic wildfire posing a risk to neighbors and firefighters. Additional benefits of prescribed fire include promoting plant diversity, improving wildlife and grazing habitat, preserving fire-dependent species, controlling forest insects and diseases and improving recreational access.

Q: How much District property is burned each year?

A: The District conducts prescribed fires on approximately 30,000 acres each year. The most common Florida natural community habitats historically burn every two to four years. District staff attempts to mimic this same interval and base goals on burning areas once every four years, while burning more frequently when possible. The District works closely with the Florida Forest Service and must receive a day-of burn authorization from the Florida Forest Service for every prescribed burn.

Q: How do you notify the public about prescribed burns?

A: The District’s Land Management Section notifies county and municipal fire departments, adjacent neighbors and recreationists as well as the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, the Florida Highway Patrol and/or other law enforcement agencies when appropriate. The District distributes news releases quarterly to the media for each county impacted and sends email blasts to potentially impacted neighborhood associations to alert them of fire activity in their area. The District also uses social media to spread the word about active prescribed burns on an as-needed basis.