Fire Ecology Course Highlights Importance of Ecosystem Management

by Alex Horn, MSc., SCCF

Victor Young oversees a burn from a fire break

Sanibel Sea School’s Adult Education Series recently focused on prescribed burns and fire ecology on the islands. Participants learned about the importance of fire to local ecosystems, how animals and plants adapt to these pyrogenic habitats, and how humans mimic nature to help maintain these specialized areas on Sanibel.

Students travelled to Sanibel Gardens to meet Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation’s “Burn Boss,” Victor Young, who oversees the safe implementation of prescribed fire. Young brought along the SCCF fire truck used in burns, as well as equipment to conduct, monitor, and extinguish burns.

Students were able to handle these items to get a better sense of the safety measures executed during a burn. The course was concluded with a guided walk through Sanibel Gardens, a preserve jointly managed by SCCF and the City of Sanibel, to see how prescribed fires have enhanced the ecosystem and maintained natural habitats on the island.

Did You Know?
• Prescribed fires are closely monitored, burn undergrowth to reduce heavy fuels, and burn at lower temperatures than wildfires.
• Designated “Burn Bosses” submit detailed “burn plans” which are legally binding documents describing the purpose of the burn, specific location, site description (habitat type), ignition method, weather conditions, site preparation, and notifications to the public.
• Historically, a vast network of freshwater swales dominated by Spartina sp. cord grass and sawgrass made up a majority of Sanibel’s interior. Lightning and early human inhabitants frequently set fire to these habitats, creating a prairie-like habitat that is essential to animals like the Sanibel rice rat (found nowhere else) and gopher tortoise.
• Our wildlife is adapted to fire. During fires, animals seek shelter in burrows or flee to low-lying wet areas to escape the fire. SCCF’s burn crews use techniques to insure animals have adequate escape routes, like making sure that the fire travels at a slower pace. Open spaces are left unignited to allow animals to escape. Frequent fires perpetuate critical habitat for gopher tortoises, birds of prey, wading birds, waterfowl, fish, invertebrates and many other species.
• Sanibel has a unique task force of partner agencies to conduct controlled burns. They are: SCCF, the Florida Forest Service, City of Sanibel Natural Resources, Sanibel Fire Department, and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Part of the SCCF (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation) Family, Sanibel Sea School’s mission is to improve the ocean’s future, one person at a time. Visit sanibelseaschool.org to learn more about the Adult Education Series.

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