Summer 1998 was one of the worst fire seasons for Florida: between mid-May and mid-July, some 2000 wildfires burned over 494,000 acres of forest in the north and central parts of the state, with total damages estimated as high as $880 million. Over 225,000 acres of southern pine plantations were destroyed, and 370 businesses and residences ruined or damaged.
Historically, periodic wildfire or prescribed burning controlled the buildup of "rough" -- the undergrowth vegetation that can fuel catastrophic fires -- in flatwood pine forests. Low-intensity prescribed fire every few years is the ideal means for controlling rough and promoting the germination and growth of native and plantation pines.
"Southern pine ecosystems are dependent on a one to five-year fire cycle," said Wade, research forester with the SRS Disturbance and Management of Southern Pine Ecosystems unit in Athens, GA. "Without fire to control pests and brush and promote seed germination, the pines in these ecosystems would eventually be replaced by hardwoods."
As human population in the South has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to set fires in forests along the wildland-urban interface because of home safety and health concerns --- and, in some cases, public misconceptions about fire ecology. Yet without prescribed burning, the undergrowth in pine flatwoods quickly becomes almost impenetrable, the perfect fuel for high-intensity fires that can endanger people and property.