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Prescribed Fire is Cool on Florida Highway

  • Author(s): Caster, Jeff
  • McBurney, Willson
  • Farley, Patricia
  • Rodriguez, Rose
  • Green, Lane
  • McGorty, Kevin
  • et al.
Abstract

Though unprecedented in the sunshine state, plans for a prescribed fire on US319/SR61, Kate Ireland Parkway in north Florida sparked enthusiasm and excitement among roadside managers. The recently expanded high speed corridor passes for ten miles through the Red Hills Region (www.ttrs.org/rhcp); a rural landscape that is host to America’s largest remnant of the great longleaf pine forest (www.longleafalliance.org). Prescribed fire is a necessary and popular landscape management tool used by generations of adjoining private land managers with responsibility for conserving this scenic, natural, and cultural resource. Using prescribed fire along this highway is safe and appropriate.It is authorized to maintain a commitment to visually and ecologically restore and reconnect the landscape that is bisected by the four lanes of pavement. Further, the high visibility of this location, provides a dramatic means to inform the public about the benefits of prescribed fire, and to demonstrate that motorists can travel safely in the presence of prescribed fire.

Years before the burn, landscape architects, landscape contractors, landscape ecologists, engineers, foresters, firefighters and friends initiated their collaboration with the Florida Department of Transportation and Division of Forestry to prepare a landscape plan and management plan for the corridor. The plan complements the natural beauty and function of the adjoining plantations. Fortunately, Tall Timbers Research Station (www.ttrs.org) is only three miles from the parkway. At Tall Timbers, scientists study the ecology of fire and natural resource management. Without their expertise and leadership, the burn would not have been possible. Finally, after manually and mechanically managing fuels within the wide forested medians, and after planting fire adapted ground cover, understory, and canopy tree species, it was time for the first authorized prescribed burn on a Florida state highway. Weather permitting, the burn was scheduled in concert local news media, and with Florida’s annual Prescribed Fire Awareness Week.

On schedule, March 7, 2005, from the peach state line, south for one and a half miles, a perfectly executed prescribed burn ignited a new era in Florida roadside management.

• A traffic control plan similar to what is used during construction, proved safe and effective. Smoke was managed well, except in one instance for a short time near a drain. The Florida Highway Patrol acted quickly to redirect traffic to another lane. There were no accidents or injuries.

• Eighty percent or more of the targeted median area burned, significantly reducing fuel load and potential for wildfire.

• Ninety percent or more of the small hardwood sprouts were eliminated, leaving behind the vigorous longleaf pine saplings and clumps of wiregrass.

• Longleaf saplings were generally scorched back close to the apical meristem, potentially acting as a control on pathogens on the old needles.

• Cogongrass, Imperata cylindrical, and other invasive plant species known to be in the vicinity thrive after fire. The burn, however, increased their visibility, and provided easier access for treatment.

• Hundreds of motorists enjoyed a safe driving experience with a close up view of the prescribed burn. Over the following weeks and months thousands enjoyed resprouting foliage and blooming wildflowers.

Prescribed burning along the ten miles will continue in three phases, on a three year or shorter interval. In addition to being safe and cost effective, Florida’s roadside managers can now report that prescribed burning helps reduce the risk of wildfire, increases native species diversity, enriches habitat, and releases bountiful wildflowers. Though it may never become routine, where appropriate, and where resources and expertise are available, prescribed burning has proven to be safe and effective for roadside vegetation management.

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