Smokey the Bear is famous for the line, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” However, the truth is that a lot of work goes in to preventing forest fires here in Walton County as well as across the state of Florida. One of the most versatile and cost-effective tools used is a prescribed fire.
Fire managers may “prescribe” lighting a fire in an area controlled by a team of fire experts. Prescribed fire (also known as a prescribed burn or controlled burn) is used to reduce and remove hazardous fuel buildups like leaves, pine straw, and underbrush, thus providing increased protection to people, their homes and the forest itself.
You will see signs on the roadways that tell you that a prescribed burn is taking place. This is to prevent emergency calls reporting it, but it’s also to keep motorists and residents safe and out of harm’s way.
These fires help disease control in young pines, assist with wildlife habitat improvement, range management, preservation of plant and animal species, and maintenance of fire-dependent ecosystems.
Several organizations are involved in the process including Florida State Parks, Eglin Air Force Base, Water Management, and a variety of other state agencies all with the goal of protecting one of the finest forest systems in the United States.
Along 30A, the main two forces protecting our forests are the Florida Forest Service (FFS) and the South Walton Fire District (SWFD). Point Washington State Forest alone is home to over 15,000 acres of protected land in Walton County.
“Prescribed fires are good for wildlife,” says Kyle Bradley, Senior Forest Ranger at Point Washington State Forest. “It helps knock back invasive species, encourages new, native growth necessary for animals like deer and turkey to survive, and these fires are good for the timber. It doesn’t kill the trees, just removes fuel for potential future wildfires.”
DID YOU KNOW? Florida is the lightning capital of the United States. A single lightning strike could lead to devastating results if forests are left without proper care and attention.
Check out this time-lapse of a prescribed burn happening north of Choctawhatchee Bay:
Check out this ⏱️ time-lapse of a 🔥prescribed burn🔥 happening over on the north side of Choctawhatchee Bay today! − 30A.com
Posted by 30A on Saturday, 15 June 2019
Our area of Florida is divided into several regions, and prescribed fires are performed on a 3-4 year rotation in each compartment. Usually scheduled between January and March for the best weather conditions, as wind, humidity, temperature, and dispersion (how the smoke will lift and travel through the area) are all taken into consideration. Manpower depends on the acreage of that quadrant, and after every burn, firefighters check the area until all smoke has been completely stamped out.
South Walton Fire District may be the first to be called in the case of a forest fire, but Florida Fire Service has the specialized equipment for wildfire prevention and firefighting is used to attack wildfire and respond to other emergency needs — no matter what the terrain or location.
Specialized vehicles like bulldozers help navigate to areas that SWFD otherwise would not be able to reach on foot.
“South Walton Fire District appreciates everything that Forestry does,” says Sammy Sanchez, SWFD Fire Marshall. “We have a great relationship with their team, and they are the real heroes.”
And, as for what you can do to prevent forest fires?
“Abide by the rules. Never leave a fire unattended. Always have a ready source to extinguish a fire. And, be good to your neighbors,” adds Sanchez.
For updates on current conditions, you can click here or visit the SWFD Facebook page for local notices.
JESSICA ROBERTS is a Santa Rosa Beach writer and event producer. When not working or writing, you’ll find her out on the water or traveling somewhere new.