The Beauty in the Burn: Controlled Winter Burn Yields a Stunning Autumn Wildflower Season
In January of 2015 I found myself staring speechless as a wall of flames roared away from me across a property scheduled for burn management.
“How can anything grow after this scorching inferno?” I thought as I watch flames consume yet another field of gallberry and palmetto on Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, a 1575-acre mitigation property just north of the Camp Blanding military reservation and south of Jennings State Forest in the southwest corner of Clay County, Florida.
I was a mere bystander that day, situated safely by the truck away from the flames, yet sweat still poured down body from my helmet to my snake books. The heat was indescribable: a wall of flames that rose up and roared through the pine flat woods without discrimination. It seemed like an untamable beast, but soon I would see why it is coined a ‘controlled burn.’ As the flames reached the dirt road it went out: poof. Just like that.
A controlled, or prescribed, burn is as much art as science, and veteran forester and burn master Steve Ripley led the efforts to burn the property. This property needed to be burned for years and there was much concern about the amount of fuel load that had built up in the subcanopy from decades of no burning. Steve’s team (top-notch pros, all of them) used drip torches and experience while reading the wind and humidity to pull off a textbook-perfect burn. After a week, mission was accomplished and it was deemed a grand success. (NOTE: Do NOT try this at home! Burning at this scale requires permits and licensed professionals and even a legal home fire could escape and cause damage. Know your local laws!)
Though a success, I left that day feeling skeptical: nothing but black scorched earth remained and I felt the landscape would never rejuvenate, or at least not anytime soon. In my intellectual, scientific brain, I knew fire was good for a property, but I still had doubts.
Evidence of rejuvenation appeared in four short weeks, but it was not until seven months later, when I personally returned to Highlands with my staff of biologists to conduct the annual vegetative monitoring that I saw the miracle in 3D. I was astonished. What was once an overgrown subcanopy choked with gallberry, smilax briars, and scores of other low growing scrub vegetation was now lush, fresh layer of shrubs and flowers – the FLOWERS! It was astonishing. Those three weeks I spent on the property were some of the most incredible of my life as an environmental consultant and field biologist.
The plethora of flowers and shrubs were met by butterflies and migrating song birds too numerous to count. The burn created new ideal habitat for any number of animals and birds, and each day we saw evidence of turkeys, rabbits, deer, and listed species such as the gopher tortoise, Sherman’s fox squirrel, and Florida black bear.
I am now a believer. After seeing the evidence like this, it is clear: there truly is beauty in the burn.