Big Cypress National Preserve Fire Regime

At one time the National Park Service put out all fires. This policy reflected the public sentiment that all fire was bad. That was before we discovered that there was fire and then there was fire. Once we gained a true appreciation of this distinction, we changed the policy.

We had discovered that ecological communities had evolved with fire; many species such as the Sequoia tree actually could not release seeds from their cones without it. The climax forests of the western plateau lands, historically free of excess underbrush, owed their openness to fire's cleansing effects. Periodically occurring natural fires would remove incendiary materials before they could build up. We had also discovered that if the air temperature were low enough and the humidity high enough, we could let a fire burn within limits. In fact we could stand right by it and watch the flames creep slowly across the fuel's surface removing accumulated material. According the the new policy, if a structural fire broke out in one of the lodges, for instance, and threatened human life, we put that fire out. However, if lightning had started a forest or range fire, we might let it burn if the climate were right. Then we began to monitor all the conditions under which fires might be set on purpose to achieve certain results: air temperature; fuel moisture; humidity;drought; wind speed and direction. Our Fire Management Plan identifies objectives of the prescribed fire management program (management ignited and natural) as: Reduce hazard fuel accumulations in the backcountry, around improvements, and along major roadside corridors. Maintain pasturage on cattle grazing leases. Manage wildlife habitat for game, nongame, protected, and rare species. Research the ecological role of fire in the Preserve's varied ecosystem. Control exotic plant species. Protect selected cultural and natural resources that are fire intolerant. Meet operation needs such as vista clearing and debris removal.

What is prescribed burning? It is the process of using lightning started fire, or a fire ignited on purpose, as a tool for vegetation management. When humidity levels, air tempetatures, and fuel conditions are ideal, fire managers set a slow burning, low to moderate intensity fire to remove selected vegetation. Likewise, if a lightning fire starts and specific fire conditions exist, the fire will be observed but may not be aggressively fought. Big Cypress National Preserve has the biggest prescribed burning program in the National Park Service! Why do prescribed burning? Natural lightning fires were a regular feature of the land before development of roads and human settlements. Now, when lightning fires start, they can threaten human life and homes. Prescribed fire allows us to manage the natural process under a more controlled situation than a wild fire would permit. Vegetation has evolved with fire. If allowed to accumulate, excessive fuel buildup results in extremely hot, catastrophic fire that may damage soil and prevent native plants from regenerating. Prescribed fire reduces fuel buildup. Its effects are selective and predictable, releasing nutrients back into the ecosystem. What habitats benefit from prescribed burning? Sawgrass prairies/marshes and pinelands benefit from burning. Many pine, flower and grass seeds flourish best just after a relatively moderate fire has swept through, releasing nutrients that allow these fire adapted plants to grow. Many species, including those shown here, flower prolifically after fire. Wildflowers are especially noticeable after a fire since the dead grass layer no longer hides them. Big Cypress National Preserve is an area born of fire. Frequent fires have encouraged growth, over time, of many plants specifically adapted to fire. Recognizing the value of fire in the ecosystem, preserve managers now use prescribed burning.

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