Driving along Highway 41 through Big Cypress National Preserve and EvergladesNational Park it’s easy to see the natural beauty of Florida in its most pristine form. The vast expanses of sawgrass prairies dotted with tree islands and cypress sloughs define the south Florida landscape. EvergladesNational Park and Big Cypress National Preserve make up the majority of the south FloridaPeninsula, at the base of a much larger ecosystem. These vast areas are so remote and somewhat mysterious that they have been written about extensively in novels, magazines, and newspapers as well as covered in many television documentaries. What may not be visible to the naked eye are the many different forces of nature that work together to create this uniquely Florida landscape.
Water, and the hydrologic cycle, is so critical to humans and all nature as well! The slow meandering flow of water moving almost imperceptibly over the vast landscape of south Florida for so many years shaped the habitats found in the area and continues to affect the efforts to restore this now managed and fragmented system. That water is the life blood of the BigCypressSwamp and the greater Everglades ecosystem is one that seems to be understood and accepted by the general public. Perhaps this acceptance is from the substantial publicity following the publication of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ “River of Grass,” textbooks and commentaries on the resource, or some of Carl Hiaasen’s recent novels.
What may surprise some residents and visitors to this area is that there is another important force that influences this landscape just as much as water. What is that force – fire!
In the beginning of the last century wildfire was viewed as a destructive force that had to be stopped in order to assure the health of an ecosystem and to protect human life and property. This changed in the late 1950s when fire management philosophy recognized fire as part of a natural cycle that was not only necessary, but a healthy component of a vibrant natural ecological cycle. Plants and animals have evolved with, and many depend on, the role fire plays in creating and maintaining a diversity of habitats.
Wildfire is part of how this ecosystem has survived and evolved and tends to occur more frequently during the transition between winter’s dry season and summer’s rainy season. These unplanned fires can be caused by human action – intentional and unintentional - or by frequent lightning strikes typical of this time of year in south Florida. Long days of sunshine cause the interior portion of the state to warm, creating frontal boundaries ripe for the creation of strong thunderstorms and frequent lightning strikes typical of this time of year in south Florida. These thunderstorms can bring upwards of 50 lightning strikes per square mile causing wildfires to start. The fire that results from these lightning strikes quickly consumes the low-lying dry grasses typical of this ecosystem. Burning these grasses releases much needed nourishment back into the nutrient deficient soils and readies the land for new growth. On the other hand many of the hardy tree species in the area, slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and bald cypress (Taxodium distchum), are relatively impervious to these quick moving fires. So long as the fire does not climb the tree and make it into the crown, most trees will survive a fire with little more than scorched bark.
A Prescribed burn, conducted by trained firefighters, may occur any time of year but is often planned for years in advance. These “prescribed fires” are conducted only after initial planning has been completed and careful assessment of current weather conditions are evaluated to ensure that it is safe to proceed for both firefighters and the public and that the goals of the fire likely to be met.
Fire, both wild and prescribed, has the potential to change landscapes more often than volcanoes, earthquakes or even floods. Fire is responsible for limiting competition between plants for water and nutrients, clearing areas for new growth, providing nutrients to the soil and plants, reducing layers of dead matter that increase the damage of wildfires, and removing unwanted guests (invasive exotics). All of which are essential functions to healthy natural areas.
Fire is without question a necessary part of life in South Florida, but it can be very unpredictable. Many factors influence how a fire will behave; wind, ambient air temperature, the fuels involved, relative humidity among many other components. As a result a wildfire can have unforeseen and devastating effects. The National Park Service helps to combat the unknown by using prescribed fire as a natural resource management tool. By mimicking the natural conditions and schedules of fires in the area, land managers are able to keep the environment healthy while maintaining the safety of those in the area.
Big Cypress National Preserve has the largest prescribed fire program in the National Park Service. On average over 80,000 acres will be purposely set on fire to keep the landscape vibrant and healthy. Everglades is somewhat lower over the past few years averaging from 30,000 – 50,000 acres a year. These fires reduce hazardous fuel loads, maintain natural landscapes, restore natural habitats, and ensure the future of the distinctively Floridian Big Cypress Swamp.
The goals of the Fire Management Program at Big Cypress and Everglades are to protect life and property and manage fire-adapted ecosystems safely. So, next time you’re traveling along highway 41 and see smoke wafting in the air, you might just be witnessing one of the many forces that keeps the CypressSwamp and Everglades ecosystem healthy.
Ryan Stubblebine is a Park Guide at Big Cypress National Preserve. Linda Friar, Chief of Public Affairs edited the article.