Wildland Fire History — Interpreting Fire in Everglades National Park

Gene Cox, Chief of Interpretation, Everglades National Park
Sue Husari, Fire Management Officer, Everglades National Park

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

Everglades National Park has been at the forefront of National Park Service fire management policy development since the park was established. The park was the first unit to use prescribed fire. In addition, Everglades was one of the first parks to implement a fire management plan.

No discussion of fire at Everglades would be complete without mentioning Dr William Robertson, Jr, who did research in the 1950s which provided the basis for the prescribed burning program. He was the first to recognize the importance of fire in habitat preservation; he also found a unique relationship between fire and water in the Everglades.

Practically every fire fighter will tell you that fighting fires in a subtropical climate is different from other parts of the country. Crews can literally fight a fire standing in water up to their knees. Fuel and substrate vary from understory hardwoods and grass on rock in the pinelands, to soft marl soil and short grass fuel in prairies, to deep muck soils often supporting six foot tall sawgrass and salt marsh species. Weather conditions·vary from extensive drought to floods.

In the “glades” areas of sawgrass sedge, fire management includes prescription buming along park boundaries. These bums provide a barrier to both large dry season wildfires and natural prescribed fires that threaten to extend beyond the park perimeter. Within the vast sawgrass interior, lightning–strike fires are monitored when in prescription. Prescription parameters include drought index, water levels, and smoke management considerations. In instances where manipulation of hydrology affects fire regimes, fire management practices may be modified in response.

Tropical hardwood hammocks are found interspersed throughout the graminoid and pine communities in the park. They do not burn when soil moisture and humidity are high in the summer months. However, both human–caused fires during the dry season and early wet season lightning fires can burn through tropical hardwood hammocks. Depth of bum depends on water levels and soil moisture content. For example, one hammock fire caused a loss of up to four feet of soil and of hundreds of hardwoods up to two feet in diameter. On the other hand, lightning fires may consume only the upper litter layer.

In slash pine and hardwood areas on the park’s eastern limestone ridge, fire is influential in determining the composition of plant communities. Prescription burns every five to seven years under predetermined conditions reduce hazardous fuel buildup and help maintain diversity.

And, finally, in the mangrove forests between sawgrass and sea, fires burn only islands of salt marsh and go out when they meet mangrove forest and water.

Interpreters make roadside contacts during prescribed burns, explaining who and how fire is used as a management tool.

On the NESA trail at Long Pine Key, we discuss the importance of fire in our environmental education programs with walks through the pineland; interpreters use a similar fire–theme walk for adult visitors. In April, at our open house at the Loop Road Environmental Education center, interpreters and Big Cypress rangers display fire fighting equipment and involve visitors in discussions about fire. The park’s main visitor center has a large wall mural about fire with audio messages in several languages. Campfire talks often highlight our fire program, and we hope to rewrite the Everglades fire brochure in the near future. A photo exhibit on fires is planned for this summer.

Servicewide, interpreting biodiversity is this year’s initiative. The role of fire management in maintaining biodiversity is emphasized in park interpretive programs. Another current interpretive objective is to highlight critical issues affecting resources in Everglades National Park. Along these lines, both the effect of alteration of water flow on fire regimes and the threat of human caused wildfires are included in presentations.

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017