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Successful prescribed burn at Bailey Tract

By Staff | Jun 29, 2016

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge conducted a prescribed burn at Bailey Tract Tuesday, June 21. PHOTO BY PAUL TRITAIK, USFW

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge had optimal conditions last week for a prescribed burn at Bailey Tract making it a very successful 120 acre burn.

“We couldn’t have asked for better conditions. We had good mixing height, which means the smoke elevated upon release, so it didn’t creep along the ground, it elevated and mixed with the atmosphere. That kept it from impacting Sanibel-Captiva Road and West Gulf Road,” Refuge Manager Paul Tritaik said. “That was something else we were monitoring to make sure we weren’t impacting those roads, as well as the homes particularly along West Gulf.”

Last week a total of 95 acres of the Bailey Tract, which is “Ding” Darling’s property, as well as an additional 25 acres of SCCF property that is immediately adjacent to the refuge’s property, was burned.

The refuge had planned to burn the Bailey Tract when they had the right conditions, as well as the resources available.

“It just so happened that Saturday (June 18) I got a call from our fire specialist down at Florida Panther who said looking at the forecast it looks promising for early next week, meaning this week,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I said OK, let’s go ahead and preliminary plan for that and start getting the preparations in motion and letting our partners know.”

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge conducted a prescribed burn at Bailey Tract Tuesday, June 21. PHOTO BY PAUL TRITAIK, USFW

The preparation began Sunday, June 19, with phone calls following on Monday, June 20 and plans to burn on Tuesday, June 21. The weather was monitored every 30 minutes to make sure the conditions remained as forecasted.

In preparation, “Ding” Darling worked with Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve. Tritaik said they have a partnership with both the refuge and preserve when conducting prescribed burns, or battling wildfires.

To have the prescribed burn on Tuesday, specific conditions were being sought. Those conditions included easterly winds and dry air, so they did not have rain to contend with.

The winds, Tritaik said were an important factor because Bailey Tract borders Tarpon Bay Road. The west portion of the Bailey Tract is mostly conservation land.

“Having easterly winds helped with smoke management of keeping it off the roads and away from people’s homes,” he said.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge conducted a prescribed burn at Bailey Tract Tuesday, June 21. PHOTO BY PAUL TRITAIK, USFW

The controlled burn began at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 21, and finished with the last ignition at 3:30 p.m. Any residual fire that was too close to the edge was put out that day. The fire within the center of the property was left to put itself out.

“There were some of those that continued to burn out yesterday (Wednesday, June 22) and then by yesterday afternoon the fire was considered out,” Tritaik said. “We kept some firefighters here over night just to check things to make sure there weren’t any flare ups and then yesterday to check on some things. There were still some areas that were burning, but they were contained, they weren’t going to spread because everything surrounding it was blacked out.”

A total of 24 personnel worked together on the prescribed burn, or assisted with traffic control, or providing public information, to make it as safe and as efficient as possible.

“That’s really important, communication to make sure everyone knows what everyone is doing,” Tritaik said. “I thought we had excellent communication.”

Several firefighters from the park services helped with the prescribed burn and staff from SCCF. In addition, Sanibel Fire Rescue District had a brush truck and several of their personnel patrolling neighborhoods providing presence letting them know they were on the scene and not to worry and the Sanibel Police Department helped in controlling traffic along Tarpon Bay Road.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge conducted a prescribed burn at Bailey Tract Tuesday, June 21. PHOTO BY PAUL TRITAIK, USFW

“Part of the burn required us to set a fire line along the eastern boundary right along the edge of the road. Even though it was burning into the Bailey Tract, just having fire right there is an attractive nuisance because people want to stop and take pictures,” Tritaik said. “We asked the Sanibel PD to control it to one line right in that stretch. That was a safety measure and they did an excellent job in moving traffic along. We were fortunate to get that done quickly and without incident.”

The prescribed burn consumed about 80 percent of the “hazardous fuels,” which is the understory that burns very heavily and could be fuel for a wildlife.

The hazardous fuels is among the main reason the prescribed burns are done.

“One of the things that burning does is we are basically mimicking Mother Nature because fire is a natural part of the ecosystem here. We are doing it in a controlled way that we get the benefits of fire without the dangers,” he said.

In addition to reducing the fuels that contribute to a wildlife, prescribed burns also improve the habitat for animals, which for the Bailey Tract is mostly a marshy, freshwater type of habitat.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge conducted a prescribed burn at Bailey Tract Tuesday, June 21. PHOTO BY PAUL TRITAIK, USFW

The prescribed burn helped by reducing the woody vegetation from the marshes, which if not burned could change the habitat and desirability for certain species, such as the Sanibel Island rice rat that calls the Bailey Tract their home.

“That’s one of the species that we are managing for and trying to improve a habitat for,” Tritaik said.

The prescribed burn at Bailey Tract has been conducted every two to three years, so the fire intensity is lower. Half of the Bailey Tract was burned two years ago and the year prior, three years ago, the first half was burned.

“This year we wanted to make sure we were able to burn the entire unit, so that we could get back onto a schedule that we could continue to burn the whole unit if the conditions provided us the opportunity to do that,” Tritaik said.

The prescribed burn was done in stages last week. The Bailey Tract is considered as a burn unit in terms of fire management because it is broken down into sections, called compartments.

“We burn these compartments separately. As we burn them it allows whatever wildlife in those compartments to escape to other areas. They will either escape into unburned areas, or actually escape into the wet areas that aren’t going to burn, or even some of the higher areas that don’t burn,” he said. “That way we are giving the wildlife a chance to escape.”

The vegetation will begin to grow back within about a month to two month’s time.

Florida Forest Service Public Information Officer Samantha Quinn, and “Ding” Darling Ranger Jeffrey Combs worked together at the information desk stationed at the Bailey’s Store during the prescribed burn to provide information. Tritaik said they had zero complaints concerning the fire.

“That speaks to how well informed most people are,” he said. “Sanibel is a very fire-wise community. People really understand the importance of fire.”

In addition to the information desk, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society helped in putting notices on everyone’s mailbox between Tarpon Bay Road and Rabbit Road to let folks know of the prescribed burn.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.