Fueled by Fire

The cohort after a great buggy ride out to the worksite.

From our early ancestors’ use of lightning strikes for ignition, to the discovery of the flint, to the modern-day advancements of spark plugs and lighters, fire has, and will always be, a cornerstone to human civilization.

We as humans depend on fire for cooking. We rely on fire to keep us warm in the harshest of climates. We use fire to power our electrical needs, allowing us to live modern lifestyles. Essentially, without fire, we would be largely relegated to the earliest forms of humanoid living.

Not surprisingly, ecosystems depend on fire just as much as humans do. Plants rejuvenate, animal behavior changes, and landscapes are altered. Among the most dependent of these ecosystems are Florida’s unique natural lands. Florida’s abundant pine trees require frequent (2-5 year) fire cycles to reproduce. Without this frequency, the flora below the forest canopy becomes heavily overgrown, increasing the fuels available and causing far more intense fires than the ecosystem is accustomed to.

Florida’s forests and prairies have developed a resilience to this harsh dependence on fire for their growth. Within months of burning, forests are green once again, with grasses and fronts producing a majestic undergrowth, mixing bright green, brown, and black colors to the landscape.

Ready to work.

The native fauna has developed just as much as the flora. Panthers hunt astutely in the diminished camouflage. Birds spot their prey from a higher altitude. Deer run quicker through the cleared flatlands. Each has its advantage and disadvantage for each species.

But Florida is changing, and rapidly. From the foremost of America’s frontiers at the turn of the 20th century, Florida has evolved into the nation’s fourth most populous state, with rapidly encroaching development bordering on the state’s no longer pristine natural habitats. Schools, hospitals, and highways now border Florida’s forests, rendering fires a severe inconvenience to the lifestyle of millions.

And that is where the challenge arises for Florida’s land managers. Big Cypress National Preserve (along with Everglades National Park) borders on some of the largest metropolitan areas in the state, Greater Miami and Naples-Fort Myers. With over a million acres of land (and counting), the fire crew at the Preserve, fifteen strong, struggles to manage the land’s thirst for fire while mitigating its unavoidable effects on the neighboring cities.

Fires, whether wild or controlled, inherently involve unwanted side effects. Smoke billows across busy highways, winds increase the expected intensity and direction of flames, fire control lines are “jumped” by scattered fuels, and danger is posed to local residents and visitors alike.

Identifying an RCW nest tree.

Notwithstanding the disastrous effects that fire can cause to human life, native species are also impacted in the short term. Among the most important of these is the Red Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), an endangered species that loses its home in the pine trees as a result of over-intense fires brought about by elongated burning cycles (for which man is partly to blame). This bird nests in small cavities it has pecked-out high in the upper echelons of mature pine, relying on the tree’s height and inherent resilience to fire to keep it safe from the flames.

But unfortunately, this is not always the case. RCW nests are all too often burned out in controlled burns, leaving the bird without a home. Fledglings perish, and reproduction is halted.

In order to lend the bird a hand, Big Cypress fire staff and ecologists have taken a proactive approach to protecting the nests. Having flagged the bird’s homes, fire staff clear an approximately 10-foot radius around the base of each pine known to house a population of RCWs, preventing these selected trees from succumbing to the wrath of a passing burn.

Clearing a tree base.

Simple manual labor, the job of clearing the base of the trees requires many willing hands. That’s where our SCA crew comes in. Throughout the day, we worked hand-in-hand with Big Cypress staff to identify flagged trees, clear targeted land, and rake away flammable debris.

It’s only a small part of the conservation equation, but a necessary step in ensuring a healthy balance between the interests of humans and the surrounding lands in fire-dependent ecosystems.