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Prescribed burn at Ding Darling gets job done

By Staff | Mar 22, 2012

Photo by SHANNEN HAYES Smoke from the early flames fills the air last week during a prescribed burn of the Botanical Site at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The prescribed burn at the Botanical Site in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge last week went without incident and got the job done.

“We worked for a year preparing the site,” said Toni Westland, Supervisory Refuge Ranger. “We put firebreaks around the north unit, through the unit and removed the Brazilian pepper trees.”

The burn plan required wind speeds 5-12 mph from a north-northeast direction and air temperatures between 65 and 90 degrees with 40 to 70 percent humidity. Those conditions were forecasted for Thursday, March 15, and were constantly monitored during the nine-hour burn.

The first flames were ignited about 9:30 a.m. in what is called a test area of the site. When it was determined the smoke and flames were behaving according to plan, additional areas of the site were ignited. The last flames were put out about 6 p.m.

“Crews and an engine were on hand mopping up through 11 p.m. in case there were any flareups,” said Westland. “And we are keeping one there all weekend.”

Crews got a little help from Mother Nature when it started to sprinkle rain late in the afternoon, but by that time the fire was well contained.

Controlled burns are meant to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires as well as help preserve the natural ecology of the area.

The Southern Florida and Caribbean Fire District of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the burn with the assistance of the Florida Forest Service, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the City of Sanibel, and the Sanibel Fire and Rescue District.

Portions of the refuge were closed to public access. As a safety precaution, Sanibel Police closed the Shared Use Path that runs parallel to Rabbit Road from San Cap Road to West Gulf Drive during the burn.

Residents and visitors were notified in advance and encouraged to close windows, cover pools and stay indoors, if necessary, to minimize impacts from smoke.

“This area had never been burned before, which is why it was so important,” said Westland. “We didn’t want any wildfires from human or weather causes.”

The north unit that was burned consists of 183 acres of the 355 acres encompassing the Botanical Site. The south unit is next on the prescribed burn list.

“We need the exact opposite conditions from this burn,” said Westland. “There are more houses adjacent to the south unit than in the north.”

There have been two prescribed burns in the Refuge in the last 10 years, according to Westland. The last one was in 2008 on the Bailey Tract.