Fire Management Plan Evolution
Fire history in Everglades National Park shows that naturally occurring fires rarely occur in November, December, January, February and March. Natural fires are infrequent occurrences even in October and April.
The annual onset of rains in May also represents the onset of the lightning season. Every decade or so very large natural fires were started during "drought years" by the first lightning storms of the season in May or June. Undoubtedly some of those fires originated outside of the boundaries of Everglades National Park.
Due to development, other human caused disturbances and a wide agricultural buffer zone many of these large natural fires within the system can never occur again. Lightning that strikes in a parking lot in Kendall will never again cause a natural fire that burns to the center of Shark Slough.
Everglades National Park is merely a fragment of a much larger ecosystem, and harbors many plants, animals and biological communities that no longer exist outside of the Park. Due to these special values at risk even some naturally occurring fires may need to be partially or fully suppressed.
The Pine Rockland Savannas of Everglades NP are one of the most unique and threatened habitats in this ecosystem. Greater than 95% of the Florida portions of this pineland community (which exists only in Miami-Dade County, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas) has been extirpated by human activity.
Prescribed fire has been used to maintain the Pinelands of Everglades National Park since April 1958. Since the 1980's, as reflected in the Fire Management Plan, application of fire was regimented with a "pine block" mentality with a sequenced series of late spring/summer fire applications based upon "wet winter / dry winter" conditions of the previous winter.
The net result of over a decade of growing season prescribed burning is that the Pinelands are nearing "restoration" to the native condition as defined by scientific study.
Natural fire in the pines was probably a combination of small local events and occasional large-scale fires. In the past few years we have moved away from the "block" manner of planning and are now planning prescribed burns that more closely mimic the natural processes that were a part of this landscape.
The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is a critically endangered species that has been on the Endangered List since inception of that list. This species of bird lives only in grass prairies in Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve and the state managed Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area. All these habitats are contiguous to the Park boundary.
While research is still incomplete, scientists currently feel that the CSSS resides in the most fire prone habitats of the Park "in spite" of fire as opposed to a species that directly benefits from fire. Future research is planned to understand the full relationship of this species to fire and to evaluate other threats to the species.
Suppressing all naturally occurring fire in CSSS habitats would lead to a single species management program that is not compatible with the overall ecosystem management approach of Everglades NP.
The current set of parameters in the FMP used to determine whether naturally occurring fires can be managed in a non-suppression manner would preclude large natural fire events. In accordance with the Federal Fire Policy of 2001, we are planning to reflect the "Wildland Fire Implementation Planning" process in the FMP. This process allows for a more holistic approach that balances resource needs, public and firefighter safety, special values at risk, current and expected conditions and other variables to determine how a naturally occurring fire should be managed. This system allows for each natural fire to be evaluated on its own set of conditions and allows for a full range of management actions including full suppression, limited suppression or no suppression.
While the current FMP enables management ignited prescribed fire to be used for pineland restoration, for hazard fuel reduction burns near Park facilities and the Park boundary, and for special resource needs, there is no special recognition of how humans have altered the large natural fire regime. We desire to reflect the future absence of large naturally caused fires from entering the Park, and suggest the increased use of prescribed fire to replace this missing natural component of the system. Such an approach will also permit us to further protect private property, special habitats and other special values at risk.
Prescription parameters for management ignited prescribed fires need to be adjusted to allow for prescribed fires to be planned under a wider range of conditions to fulfill all aspects of fire management needs. These changes would also reflect the intent of the Federal Fire Policy of 2001, and allow for application of fire in a full range of natural conditions.
The FMP will reflect the need to adaptively manage the Pinelands prescribed burning until a definitive long-term maintenance fire regime for the Pinelands can be established. The burning schedule for the next season will be determined annually in consultation with government and cooperative scientists, resource managers and park managers.
Everglades Fire & Aviation will pursue research, analyze fire effects monitoring information and a coordinated multi-disciplined approach to develop a long-term maintenance strategy for the Pinelands. Once developed, this will become an appendix to the FMP.
Everglades Fire & Aviation will develop a cooperative agreement with the appropriate bureaus of the Miami-Dade County government to assist the County in prescribed fire treatments of pine rockland fragments within the County. These areas harbor rare and endangered species that are an important gene pool for the long-term maintenance of this entire pineland ecosystem. This cooperative agreement will be a future appendix to the FMP.
A five-year fire and research management strategy for dealing with the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow issues is being developed. This plan, developed in concert with government and academic researchers as well as federal and state fire managers, will address specific fire management actions in each of the six identified CSSS habitat zones. This is an adaptive management plan that will be reviewed annually. Decisions regarding permissible fire activities within each habitat will be based on current populations and trends, annual fire occurrence, research needs and results of research activities. This plan, once completed, will become an Appendix to the FMP.
Did You Know?
The Everglades is not the proverbial swamp many people consider it to be. It is technically a river, flowing southwest at the slow rate of about a quarter mile per day.