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Fire ecology course highlights ecosystem management

By Staff | Mar 2, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation “Burn Boss” Victor Young oversees a burn from a fire break.

On Feb. 13, the Sanibel Sea School’s Adult Education Series 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 the pyrogenic habitats, and how humans mimic nature to help maintain these specialized areas on Sanibel.

Students traveled to the Sanibel Gardens to meet the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s “Burn Boss,” Victor Young, who oversees the safe implementation of prescribed fire. Young brought along the SCCF truck used in burns, as well as equipment to conduct, monitor and extinguish burns. Participants were able to handle the items to get a better sense of the safety measures executed during a burn.

It concluded with a guided walk through the Sanibel Gardens, a preserve jointly managed by the SCCF and city, to see how prescribed fires have enhanced the ecosystem and maintained natural habitats.

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 the habitats, creating a prairie-like habitat that is essential to animals like the Sanibel rice rat – found nowhere else – and gopher tortoise.

– Local wildlife is adapted to fire. During fires, animals seek shelter in burrows or flee to low-lying wet areas to escape the fire. The 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 other species.

– Sanibel has a unique task force of partner agencies to conduct controlled burns. They are: the SCCF, Florida Forest Service, Sanibel Natural Resources Department, Sanibel Fire and Rescue Department and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Part of the SCCF family, the Sanibel Sea School’s mission is to improve the ocean’s future, one person at a time. For more information about the Adult Education Series, visit sanibelseaschool.org.