Ecology at core of National Prescribed Fire Training

July 5th, 2016 by Red Hills

Published in Tallahassee Democrat, July 1st 2016

For the past 18 years people have been making a pilgrimage to the National Prescribed Fire Training Center in Tallahassee for hands-on training in the use of prescribed fire.  I spent the day with a group participating in one of the intensive 20-day training sessions that draw people from around the world to experience the depth of fire ecology knowledge here in our Red Hills Region.

I joined the group on the second day of their 20-day experience for a field trip to help attendees get oriented to the region and our extensive history of prescribed fire.  Gathered in a conference room at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, the class included a local Florida State University professor and folks from Montana, Idaho, California, and Victoria, Australia.  Past sessions have attracted a total of 2,065 participants from 49 states and 17 countries.

During a presentation by Dr. Kevin Robertson, Fire Ecology Program Director for Tall Timbers, the group discussion effortlessly switched back and forth between the mechanics of fire control and how different plants and animals respond to fire at different times of year, different times between fires, and different acreages of land burned at one time.  This is the world of fire ecology – a world of balancing the safe use of fire and smoke emissions with the continuously growing body of knowledge about how to apply fire for the benefit of different plants and animals.

Fire is a natural part of Southern pine forests.  Without fire, pinelands would be over colonized by hardwood trees, creating a dense shrubby habitat.  Many native animals need the open pine forest with a rich floor of grasses and other plants that results from frequent fires.  Prescribed fire is a tool to bring fire back on the land to help these native animals and also help prevent dangerous wildfires that can occur when too much plant material builds up.  This buildup of plant fuels is an especially big wildfire concern for the more arid western states, as was reflected by the high number of students who traveled in from the west to attend the Prescribed Fire Training Center session.

By the end of my day with the Prescribed Fire Training Center class I felt optimistic about the future of prescribed fire and the growing understanding that fire is an important part of managing our natural areas and preventing more destructive wildfires.  I also felt very lucky to live in the Red Hills Region, where we have a strong history of prescribed fire, allowing us to see examples of the open pine forests that once covered the southeast.

For more information about the National Prescribed Fire Training Center, visit www.fws.gov/fire/pftc.

Brian Wiebler is the Red Hills Community Outreach and Education Coordinator for Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Exploring the Red Hills Region is a blog sharing stories of the ecological, historical, and cultural wonders of the Red Hills Region. Send inquires to Brian Wiebler, brian@ttrs.org.

Fire by the Numbers:

  • 14,400 Years Ago- An abundance of charcoal at the Page-Ladson archaeological site along the Aucilla River indicates an increase in regional fires starting from this time forward.
  • 18-24 Months- Estimated time between fires in pine forests of the Red Hills Region.
  • 1,000,000 Acres Plus- Total area burned as part of prescribed fires set during classes for the National Prescribed Fire Training Center.
  • 4%- Estimated remaining area of the fire dependent longleaf pine forest that once spread across the southeast from southern Virginia to eastern Texas.

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