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Wild Florida

Fire plays critical role in Myakka park

Some imperiled species, such as the gopher tortoise, crested caracara and pine lily, wouldn't survive without occasional fires.


Regular schedules of prescribed burns help restore and maintain healthy habitats for imperiled fire-dependent species such as gopher tortoises.
Regular schedules of prescribed burns help restore and maintain healthy habitats for imperiled fire-dependent species such as gopher tortoises.
Photo by Miri Hardy
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Fire, as a result of lightning, is one of the primary natural forces that shapes Florida’s ecosystems.

Indeed, from an ecological perspective, fire is a normal and often beneficial process. It is critical for the health of 78% of the Myakka River State Park, where numerous natural communities depend on fire to maintain their plant composition and structure.

Importantly, these communities support flora and fauna that couldn't survive without fire, including imperiled species such as the gopher tortoise, crested caracara and pine lily.

In Florida, natural wildfires historically burned seasonally, typically at a low intensity. They slowly meandered across large areas, where rivers and wetlands eventually stopped their spread.

Suppression of natural wildfires began in the 1930s, to protect forests for lumber. As we observe National Wildfire Awareness Month, it is important to recognize the critical role that prescribed fires, which safely reintroduced fire into our ecosystems, play in protecting both our natural and human communities.

In contrast to wildfires, prescribed fires are set on purpose. This crucial natural resource management tool is used by trained professionals who safely mimic natural lightning-set fires. These burns benefit the large number of Florida’s imperiled plant and animal species which are dependent on periodic fire for their continued existence.

But prescribed fires also protect our human communities, as fire-dependent natural communities gradually accumulate flammable vegetation. Regular and smaller burns can lower the intensity or even prevent wildfires by consuming “fuels” like pine needles, dead grass, fallen trees, and thick brush that would otherwise build up and could produce intense, destructive wildfires.

Although prescribed fires do emit smoke, the net benefit is less smoke pollution overall.

Current climate trends of above-normal temperatures, with varied precipitation forecasts, could exacerbate dry conditions in wildfire-prone areas like Florida. Research underscores that these climate conditions are closely linked to increased wildfire risks.

With encroaching development progressively restricting the park's ability to effectively use prescribed fire, the importance of supporting and maintaining undeveloped buffers around conserved lands is highlighted. Raising awareness about the importance of fire for ensuring the health of our natural areas, and our own, is paramount.

 

author

Miri Hardy

Miri Hardy is the first executive director of Friends of Myakka River, a nonprofit that supports Myakka River State Park. She’s been a Sarasota resident since 2014 and holds a doctorate in social psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. Miri is happiest exploring wild Florida, often on her bike, and capturing its beauty with her camera.

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