Being a second generation Florida native and a Florida fire ecologist by trade, I thought it would be helpful to shed some light on the #WestMimsFire and why there is so much fire in Florida. The #WestMimsFire started in Georgia by lightning strike on April 6 in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and has spread into Florida and onto private lands. It is over 144,000 acres and is expected to burn until November of 2017. Why in the world is this fire happening, how can we stop it or prevent these fires in the first place, and what does smoke and fire mean for our children? Scroll down as I answer 4 questions about Florida fire to learn more.
Question: What was your job as a Florida fire ecologist?
Answer: I worked at the St. Johns River Water Management District and my job was a Land Resource Specialist. As part of that I conducted prescribed burns and responded to wildfires, much like the #WestMimsFire. 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 it was determined how much wind was needed, how dry it was, what the weather was going to be later that day, what the weather has been and what safe conditions were for controlling the fire and keeping fire staff safe. I set fire to the ground by foot, ATV, alongside helicoptors, and even by horseback. We wore special protective gear for fires in the woods - tall boots, helmet, protective glasses and gloves, clothing material called Nomex, which repels fire to a certain extent, and a special fire shelter that you could climb into in case of emergency. We wore radios so we were in contact with other staff working the fire. 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 and when the fuel dropped, 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 causing wildfires. We put on our gear and jumped in our brush trucks that carried 300 - 500 gallons of water and brought our bulldozers and 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 nights on fires and many times I put out fires every day for weeks at a time adding more and more water to put them out. It was an exciting job and I loved with my whole heart taking care of Florida's forests.
Question: Why in the world would you set fire to the forest in Florida?
Answer: It does seem 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. Therefore without fire, the plants would cease to exist AND there would be catastrophic wildfires like the #WestMimsFire and forest fires we hear about out west. Remember how each summer we get those afternoon thunderstorms everyday? Well that means there is typically lightning with those storms everyday. Long ago, when lightning hit the ground in Florida, the lightning capitol of the United States with 1 million lightning strikes per year, the ground set on fire. With only Native Americans here, the fires were allowed to run and move and go out at the next water body, like the St. Johns River or Ocean or Intracoastal Waterway, for examples. It was no big deal so it was allowed to roam. Fires every summer meant that bushes and shrubs were killed back every year before they grew back again and there was not much to burn, so flames were probably knee high or a bit higher in some places. If you can imagine a peaceful burn, completely opposite of this 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 survive. And it is so cool how they did adapt with fire! Gopher tortoises build burrows so when the fire comes, they crawl underground in soft soils...and they welcome snakes, frogs, rabbits, and over 350 species into their homes, or their abandoned homes. Bartram's Ixia, a rare purple flower, refuses to bloom until fire has come through so we may not see that flower for many years until we apply fire. The longleaf pine, which was once a pine tree that was in the southeast everywhere, won't open its pine cones without smoke, because why open if the seeds will be burned by fire. It also won't grow up into a tree until fire has come and 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, the apical meristem, from the fire. Super cool stuff! But the opposite happens without fire - the plants adapted to fire will stop growing or blooming. Bushes and shrubs grow out of control and gopher tortoises can't find grasses to eat in the shade of the bushes so they can't live in those places anymore, and neither can any of the species that use their burrows. And beautiful plants, like the Bartram's Ixia, green eyes, and more won't bloom and make new plants. Fire is part of Florida and today fire managers mimic the fires of summer by doing controlled burns to prevent these devastating wildfires we see today and out west. If we manage our natural areas and private lands with fire or mowing so brush is not tall and overgrown, it will be much easier to prevent wildfire, or put it out, and our wildlife and plants can continue to grow with fire.
Question: If fire is natural, why is the #WestMimsFire one burning out of control?
Answer: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a large swamp and right now it is extremely dry in Florida. We haven't had much rain as far back as October with Hurricane Matthew. That means the plants, swamps, wetlands, and creeks are extremely dry right now and can easily catch on fire. During the last rains on April 6, a lightning strike caused a fire, just like hundreds of years ago. And just like back in the day, the fire is running. The difference is now bushes and shrubs that move the fire along are tall and dense, and allow the fire to move quickly and even up into the pine trees, which have needles that burn. With dry weather, crazy shifting winds, and many acres of land to burn in the swamp, it became out of control. Fire managers are working hard to put out fires, put firelines along the fire so it won't have anything to burn so it will stop moving, they are putting water on the fire by woods brush fire truck, helicopter, and more, and they are protecting homes and other structures. This fire definitely needs rain. In the swamps the dry, muddy soil with old leaves and plants decomposing, the fire will burn for months...into November.
Question: What does this mean to us in Jacksonville?
Answer: The #WestMimsFire probably won't reach us, however with many days of northwest winds (the fire is northwest of us and northwest winds blow southeast right to Jacksonville) we will smell smoke and see it in the air. Many moms are from up north in the community in which I live and haven't experienced Florida dry season and fires, which runs January - May. It can be worrisome to have this level of smoke for so many days with kids who want to play outside in this sunny weather while it isn't raining. If your child has asthma contact your doctor for guidance and if you have a gut bad feeling about the smoke or it looks like it is affecting their eyes or makes them cough, keep them inside if you can. But otherwise there's not much we can do. We've been outside regularly and it is not affecting our children. During the late afternoons when it is not so hot and dry, the fire quiets down and you could try to limit play to the those hours from 6:00pm - 8:00pm.
This fire also sheds light on the importance of conservation programs and landowner assistance programs. Many governments cut funding for land conservation and funding programs, like the Florida legislature that is not funding Florida Forever to purchase land for conservation, even though Florida residents voted for this 2 years ago. If we can call our legislatures and let them know we support funding for more firefighters, equipment, and land managers that help with prescribed burns to prevent wildfires, we can better protect our lands, our homes, and our air. Also, teach your children about fire. Talk to them about how fire is good (yup, opposite of Smokey the Bear) when land managers do controlled fires and how it helps our wildlife and nature. Florida has some really neat natural resources, water, and wildlife and if we have the funds to manage them correctly, we can live in better harmony with prescribed fire to prevent these long term wildfires, protect lands for our Florida black bears, ensure we have enough water for our wetlands, wildlife and people, and continue to enjoy clean water for fishing, beautiful conservation areas to take our children hiking, and bring in income for natural resources tourism from the one million visitors who use our natural areas each year.
We hope all of the firefighters stay safe, hydrated and rested and we thank them for all they do to keep Florida residents safe! If you have any questions about the fire, post them below and I can answer them for you. My former coworkers are on the fire and I'm watching them work this fire via social media as they work hard to protect homes and citizens.
To learn more about prescribed burning in our area, visit the St. Johns River Water Management District website.
To find local parks and conservation areas to take kids hiking and canoeing in nature, visit our Nature Adventures page.
About the Author: Terri worked for almost a decade in Florida's forests with fire, cowboys, spiders and snakes. Her book, "Backcountry Trails of Florida: A Guide to Hiking Florida's Water Management Districts," comes out in September 2017. It discusses her days spent in the woods as a female land management specialist and guides hikers through the Florida backcountry.