It’s that time of the year when familiar smells fill the air: Pumpkin spice, holiday baking and cooking ... and smoke from prescribed burns.
The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex plans to conduct prescribed burns on Big Pine Key sometime during the first two weeks of November, weather permitting, according to officials there.
Prescribed burns in the Florida Keys refuges are implemented by a highly qualified and trained staff of interagency professional fire specialists, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Firefighters are brought in from the National Park Service, the state and U.S. Forest Services and Monroe County to assist.
According to Brian Pippen, Burn Boss trainee for the upcoming burns, the FWS is trying to doing everything possible to alert the public ahead of time, with news releases to the local media, social media and with electronic road signs on local roadways.
The exact dates of the prescribed burns are undetermined, but Pippen said they will be decided approximately 72 hours in advance, depending if weather conditions meet parameters. Pippen said, ideally, officials want humidity above 50% and 20-foot winds at 12 mph. Fuel moisture is another important parameter being monitored, he said.
“If it’s going to be too hot, it’s going to be too dry or, if it’s going to be too windy, then we won’t do the burn and we’ll save it for another day,” Pippen said.
The plan is to burn in specific areas for six to eight hours starting late afternoon and extending into the evening hours. This is the best time, Pippen said, when humidity is higher and temperatures are lower, which allows moderation of fire behavior. The burn area measures 115 acres and is similar in size to last year’s prescribed burn.
There is a lot of planning that goes into these prescribed burns to ensure they are successful, Pippen said. Everything from the weather to the time of the year is taken into consideration. Pippen said this is the best time of the year because it’s the end of rainy season and as close to a dormant season as possible.
In his role, Pippen works to ensure enough people will be there to assist, and he also is in contact with the National Weather Service to ensure weather conditions are appropriate. He will meet with refuge managers to see if they need help with notifying the public and, on the day of the operation, he assists the person in charge of the entire operation.
Pippen, who was a part of the prescribed burn last year, said outside of a couple of minor complaints from locals about smoke and the impact on the wildlife and habitat, everything went well.
Last year’s burn area focused on northern Big Pine Key, north and west of Blue Hole along Key Deer Boulevard.
Prescribed burns are important for the continued survival of local species, such as the federally endangered Key deer, the Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly and the butterfly’s host plant, pineland croton, which has evolved to be dependent upon fire.
Pippen said prescribed burns are also important for the residents who live in the area.
“We’re doing this to minimize the hazardous fuel buildup that’s there. I think it was 2018 when they had the 75-acre wildfire and we lost a home in a wildfire down there on Big Pine Key. This burn will definitely help mitigate that risk in the future,” Pippen said.
Community updates will be announced over the next few weeks on the refuge’s website and Facebook page and via roadside advisory signs. Maps of proposed prescribed burn units will be posted in the near future on Florida Keys Refuges Facebook (FloridaKeysRefuges) and website http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/.