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Publication #CIR1018

Understanding Fire: Nature's Land Management Tool 1

G.W. Tanner, W.R. Marion, and J.J. Mullahey2

This document describes the ecological benefits of fires: the naturally occurring ones in Florida's lightning-derived fire season from mid-April through July and the prescribed (human-made, deliberate) fires. .

Lightning--the origin of natural fires

Florida has the greatest number of thunderstorm days of any region in the United States. Florida's lightning-derived fire season is from mid-April through July. About 1,000 lightning-set fires are documented in Florida each year.

Once, most natural fires were relatively frequent, burned at low intensity and impacted large areas because natural fire breaks (rivers and wetlands) were spread out.

Prescribed (deliberate, officially set) fires traditionally are used from December through March- a period of predictable wind patterns and cooler, safer, burning conditions.

Prescribed fires during the lightning season behave more like natural fires, but are more difficult to control than those set earlier in the year.

Fire-dependent ecosystems of Florida

Longleaf pine/turkey oak sandhills

Natural burning frequencies of two to four years maintain pine dominance and reproductive wiregrasses, see Table .

Sand pine/scrub oak complexes

Longer natural burning frequencies of 10 to 60 years result in high-intensity, devastating fires; but these are required to maintain pine-oak mixtures.

Pine/saw-palmetto flatwoods

Natural burning frequencies of two to four years maintain reproduction of pine (longleaf and slash), wiregrass, and bluestem grasses; and keep shrubs from dominating the understory, see Table .

Rockland pine forests

Natural burning frequencies of three to seven years maintain the existence of many endemic herbaceous species and keep hardwood hammock species from invading, see Table .

Wet and dry prairies

Natural burning frequencies of two to five years promote flowering of grasses and other herbaceous plants while reducing shrub competition or invasion.

Ecological benefits of fire

• Promotes flowering of herbaceous species and fruit production of woody species.

  • Improves nutritional quality of plants for both wild and domestic animals.

  • Enhances nutrient cycling of some elements and elevates soil pH.

  • Maintains required habitat conditions for fire-adapted plant and animal species.

  • Results in a more heterogenous and diverse habitat--if natural fires are patchy--leaving pockets of unburned areas.

  • Prohibits wildfire conditions from developing (i.e., vast accumulation of highly-flammable, dead vegetation.)

Negative aspects of fire occurrence

• Temporary (two to twelve months) degradation of aesthetic quality until vegetation recovers.

  • Temporary (two to twelve months) displacement of some animal species requiring thick ground cover.

  • Some danger of fire leaving a prescribed area.

  • Smoke and soot impacting off-site areas.

Negative aspects of fire suppression

• Loss or alteration of native plant and animal species composition.

  • Disruption of an ecosystem's functioning (e.g., mineral cycling, plant and animal succession).

  • Alteration of a plant community's general appearance.

  • Reduction of flowering and production of plants.

  • Possibility of uncontrollable wildfires devastating natural areas, homes, and buildings.

Sources of additional information

Contact your local:

County Agricultural Extension Agent, Florida Cooperative Extension Service.

County Forester, Florida Division of Forestry, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Tables

Table 1. 
Table. Examples of fire-dependent species
Animal Plant

Red-cockaded

woodpecker

Longleaf pine
Scrub jay Pineland threeawn (wiregrass)
Gopher tortoise Pine lily
Bobwhite quail Ocala sand pine
Sherman's fox squirrel Cutthroat grass
Key deer Big Pine partridge pea

Footnotes

1.

This document is CIR1018, one of a series of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date July 1991. Revised September 2002. Reviewed October 2011. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

G.W. Tanner, Ph.D. associate professor, W.R. Marion, Ph. D. former associate professor, both of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, and J.J. Mullahey, Ph.D. Southwest Florida REC, Immokalee, FL 34143, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.