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Posted March 7, 2017 | 4:22 PM

Mother Nature's Friend: Prescribed Burns

Intentionally-set fires that protect civilization and help prevent wildlife are a vital tool of County land managers

The aftermath of a winter cold front provided near-perfect conditions for a recent prescribed burn in Lithia - one of perhaps 150 wildfire-deterring, nature-boosting fires that this year will help sustain Hillsborough County parks and preserves.

The fires, meticulously set and managed by experts, are beneficial. They consume grasses, brush, and deadwood which can fuel wildfires, threatening people and private property. They also control invasive plants and encourage growth of native, fire-adapted vegetation in natural areas.

The County's Conservation & Environmental Lands Management department maintains about 80,000 acres of wilderness, preserve, and regional parks throughout Hillsborough County. Prescribed burns are one of the most effective and efficient ways to do so.

As much as possible, land managers who conduct prescribed burns try to mimic the natural process of lightning-sparked fires that sweep through forests and fields. The difference: Managers give priority to protecting urban areas, farms, and other developments.

Fire, of course, is the major consideration. But so is smoke. Predictable wind is one of the reasons that winter cold fronts are welcomed. After a front passes, wind blows steadily from the west. This weather pattern enables land managers to anticipate fire behavior and smoke dispersion. They keep the fire within a designated area with natural and manmade fire breaks (open water, trails, trenches, and other barriers).

Here's how a prescribed fire works: A certified burn manager submits a plan to the Florida Forest Service and requests support if needed. Crews prepare the site by identifying natural fire breaks and grooming fire lanes. Ignition begins slowly, with the crew constantly monitoring a fire's progress. Prescribed fires generally burn themselves out, but crews assist by extinguishing any hot spots. The burn manager conducts post-burn inspections to ensure public safety and monitor ecological restoration.

A Jan. 24 prescribed fire burn on 375 acres of the Alafia River Corridor Nature Preserve came off as planned. Winds were seven to 11 mph, and dependably westerly. Flames ignited by the burn team swept across the tract, consuming grasses, brush, fallen branches, and even some trees. Though flames initially blackened the ground, the fire will enhance plant diversity and encourage new growth that is a staple of many creatures' diets. New green shoots will appear after the next rain. 

Prescribed fires are designed to allow animals to escape. A variety of small animals find refuge underground in gopher tortoise burrows. Others take shelter in wetlands or move into the surrounding forest. They return to a healthier environment.

Most prescribed burns in Hillsborough County are conducted on large tracts of natural areas purchased by the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP), and they increasingly are used to manage portions of Regional Parks.

Photo Information: Hillsborough County and state experts ignite and monitor a prescribed burn at Alafia River Corridor Nature Preserve.