To protect your house, a nearby fire might be just what the doctor ordered. As counterintuitive as that may sound, it’s true.
The Florida Division of Forestry is dedicated to protecting and managing the forest resources of Florida, which includes wildfire prevention and suppression in an effort to protect homeowners from the threat of damage. And, it just so happens one of the best ways to manage wildfires is through a process called prescribed burning. This “burning” is essentially applying fire in a knowledgeable manner to forest fuels through a calculated, well-managed plan with clear objectives. It’s prescribed anywhere that is considered a risk through their annual mitigation action plan, but especially in areas where there is a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), or an area where communities are surrounded by heavily wooded areas, such as Wedgefield located in rural East Orlando.
“There are thousands of acres of protected forests that we are responsible for burning throughout Orange County,” says Will Kitchings, forest area supervisor for Orange County with the Division of Forestry. “But we also fight wildfires, plan and assist in landowner assistance burns and we’re on standby with Deseret Ranch and TM Ranch if they need our assistance.” It’s Kitchings job to grant authorization to anyone within the county that wants to burn their property 365 days a year.
But the question still remains: why burn? “There’s a lot of reasons, the main being hazard removal,” says Kitchings. “Burning is the more efficient, natural tool to help us keep the wildfires, when they do occur, from getting out of control.” A controlled burn is meant to remove the access fuel, which is often dead brush or leaves, in the case of a real fire. “I’ve seen them burning, or at least I’ve seen the woods on fire, plenty of times,” says Wedgefield resident Bill DeRosen. “I’m glad there is someone out there proactively protecting my property from fires.”
“The last thing we want is a 10 foot high palmetto forest to ignite, that’s a heck of a fire and very hard to control, especially if there are homes nearby,” says Kitchings.
Another aspect DOF must constantly be aware of is smoke management because of the communities that back up against the wildland areas. “Holding the fire is easy if you have the right plan and equipment, it’s the smoke that presents the real challenge,” says Kitchings. “Residents see smoke or fire and they want to run or put it out, but not all fire is out of control and one of the hardest things we have to do is plan so our smoke has a minimal effect on surrounding areas.”
In addition to planning properly and operating within an optimum weather window, DOF also has a community outreach program in an effort to let area residents know when they will be burning. “We usually go door to door or try and do a ‘Dear Neighbor’ letter so people know they can call us with any questions or concerns but most people in WUI areas are pretty aware of burning because of where they live.”
Burning just isn’t regulated to DOF however, as mentioned above. Anyone owning property can burn if they take a certification course and receive authorization from Kitchings. In fact, DOF will even assist with the burn. “The planning process is huge,” says Kitchings. “You need to have a prescription with objectives, firing methods and so much more. You also have to map out your weather parameters, wind, humidity, amount of people used and their position, equipment and even special concerns such as whether to watch for smoke on a ground road.” When all of that’s finished, the burn can commence after 9:00 a.m. and must be finished within 12 hours. “We’re more than happy to help with any aspect from planning to execution with the landowner,” he says.
For Kitchings and DOF, it all comes back to keeping natural areas and neighborhoods safe. “Smokey was a good thing and a bad thing for us because now people are scared of all fires,” he says. “We do everything we can to prevent forest fires and that’s what prescribed burning is all about.”
Article by Corey Gehrold