If you see a plume of smoke rising up into the sky in Florida this time of the year, it could be an under-controlled wildland burning that has little chance to spread.
Wildland management agencies use the early part the dry season in Florida for the purposeful burning of smaller tracts of land. The fires are called prescribed burns and are managed by trained woodland firefighters. They help to manage the woods while avoiding larger, more destructive wildfires later.
Prescribed fires (also known as controlled burning) restore ecosystem health and help ecosystems that depend on the burn-and regrow cycle for their survival. First, fire managers need to create a safety plan for each burn. The humidity must be above a specific level, the winds below an appropriate speed, and the temperature must be just right. Throughout the entire process, firefighters, tractors and water trucks are present.
A prescribed fire supports the natural cycle that fire-dependent animals need, according to Patrick M. Mahoney of the Florida Forest Service. He is a specialist in wildfire mitigation in the Myakka River District which includes Charlotte and Desoto counties. It can also help eradicate invasive and exotic species.
Mahoney explained that firefighters who are responsible to control controlled burns have undergone specialized training. They know how to evaluate all environmental factors and decide whether a prescribed burning is a good idea.
The land is cleared of all underbrush and dead vegetation. This allows new plants to thrive. You can even design a specific mix of grasses or shrubs to benefit one type of animal or plant, or the entire forest. Fires can also be lit to provide food and habitat for animals.
Fire managers tend to choose January through March over later in the year, when the woods are usually so dry that it is difficult to control the fire. They also limit the size of the fires to a few hundred acres.
The Florida Forest Service and South Florida Water Management District burn thousands of acres each year of South Florida woodland in controlled fires. This is how more than 60,000 acres are burned each year in the Big Cyprus National Preserve.