While wildfires pose a serious threat to humans, animals and plants, University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS experts, say fighting fire with fire is an excellent way to help prevent them.

According to Martha C. Monroe, a UF/IFAS associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, “Florida is a national leader in managing prescribed burns in wildlands. Our unique combination of fire-dependent ecosystems and weather that accommodates prescribed burning in every season of the year contributes to this leadership role.”

In the past half a century, changes in Florida’s wildlands have led the return to using prescribed burning to manage vegetation in the forests. In Florida, fire is prescribed for 1.5 to 2 million acres of land each year.

“Prescribed burning is a precise tool for vegetation management,” said Alan J. Long, a UF/IFAS associate professor with the School of Forest Resources and Conservation. “When properly managed, it reduces the risk of wildfire by decreasing shrub and herbaceous vegetation and accumulated dead fuels, improves wildlife or grazing habitat, and promotes successful forest regeneration.”

There are several factors that can increase the spread of wildfires and the amount of damage that they do. Fire requires oxygen, fuel, and heat to sustain itself. In wildfires, the fuel generally is provided by plants and shrubs, and if there is an abundance of fire-prone plant life, the chances of a wildfire increase greatly.

One of the advantages of prescribed burning is the controlled removal of the fuel that would allow a wildfire to spread. “Prescribed burning, the controlled use of fire to achieve land management goals, is a useful tool for resource managers in Florida,” says Monroe.

Prescribed burning is also one of the most important and cost-effective tools used to manage Florida's forested lands for wildlife. "Prescribed fire used at regular intervals helps control hardwood brush to the benefit of herbaceous groundcover plants,” says UF/IFAS Leon County Natural Resources Extension Agent Will Sheftall.

“These plants are vital natural food for game, and also important cover. Deer, turkey, quail and rabbits all rely on groundcover species for forage and seeds, and deer utilize succulent woody re-growth as browse."

However, as useful as prescribed burning is, there are still some safety concerns and regulations to keep in mind when conducting prescribed burning. “Two of the most important are the possibilities of fire spreading to adjacent properties and smoke intrusions in populated areas,” says Long.

Generally, prescribed burning is not allowed by the Division of Forestry or DOF, the agency that regulates prescribed burning permits, when hot, dry weather conditions or an abundance of fuel would increase the chances that the fire could spread. In addition, state and local agencies must monitor the air for pollutants in order to ensure that it meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, as established by the 1970 Federal Clean Air Act.

According to Sheftall, "The best times to burn are from winter through spring. Colder weather, dormant season burns are often best for controlling heavy fuel loads, or for burning vegetation that has a low volatility and high moisture content in the spring. Growing season burns are best for controlling hardwood underbrush, as long as the fuel load is moderate."

In order to conduct a prescribed burn in the state, authorization must be received from DOF. Before seeking authorization, a burner must prepare a burn plan, which includes pertinent information like location, size and description of the area to be burned, amount and type of vegetation, and a weather analysis.

UF/IFAS Leon County Forestry Extension Agent Stan Rosenthal, who has years of experience assisting landowners with land management planning that includes prescribed fire, emphasizes that, "Every landowner's situation is different, so it is impossible to provide a general fire prescription. A burn plan is tailored to specific landowner management goals, specific fuels, and specific vulnerabilities (structures, adjacent forest lands or dry wetlands and their fuels, roads, residential areas, airports).”

All prescribed fires must have adequate fire breaks around the burn area, have adequate personnel and fire control equipment, remain within the authorized area, have someone present until the fire is completely extinguished and have permission from the landowner.

For more information about the benefits of prescribed burning and photo gallery before, during and after a prescribed burn, visit http://nfrec.ifas.ufl.edu/prescribedburn.htm.