Prescribed burns get rid of out-of-place hardwoods and ground debris to help the longleaf habitat thrive, officials said.
A horseman wearing a tan cowboy hat dribbled fuel from a metal torch in a line through the forest at Princess Place and lit it, watching as the slow-burning row of flames munched through shrubs and leaf litter.
"If you turn the clock back about 200 years, where we're standing right now, this would be all longleaf pine. It would be very open."
— TIM TELFER, Flagler County Environmental Planner
Lighting a forest on fire is usually a bad thing — unless you're someone like Chris Schlageter, a consultant hired to help the county with prescribed fires. Schlageter was one of about 10 people managing a prescribed burn at Princess Place Preserve Feb. 26 as one step in a process officials hope will rejuvenate the area's native longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat.
"This is the time when you get to have the most beneficial impact on a property," Flagler County Environmental Planner Tim Telfer said as the flames moved toward the sandy firebreak where he was standing, and burned out. "If you turn the clock back about 200 years, where we're standing right now, this would be all longleaf pine. It would be very open."
Prescribed burns — also called controlled burns — are used across the southeast to burn out plants that compete with native and threatened longleaf pine and wiregrass habitats, and keep flammable ground cover and debris from building up to the point where any fire would become catastrophic.
At Princess Place Feb. 26, shrubby little oak trees, whose waxy leaves don't burn efficiently, covered the ground, thicket-like.
Because oaks don't burn well but pines depend on fire, oaks can displace pines by slowing or stopping the periodic natural fires the pines depend on. And as the ground cover thickens, animals that depend on the sparser wiregrass habitat — like gopher tortoises, quail and wild turkey — are pushed out, Telfer said.
The prescribed fire at Princess Place would make the land more hospitable for the critters while reducing the oaks, which really "belong in a hardwood hammock, not necessarily a longleaf pine ecosystem," he said.
From 92 million acres to 4.3 million acres
The country's longleaf pine habitat once covered about 92 million acres, Telfer said, but now covers only about 4.3 million acres. Much of what's left is in poor condition, according to the U.S. Forest Service/USDA Southern Research Station.
Longleaf pine habitat — which has a natural spread from Virginia to eastern Texas and across the northern half of Florida — is hospitable country for people to build in and harvest timber from. And for many years, people suppressed the natural fires that kept the habitat healthy, but didn't hold burns to emulate that natural cycle.
"Most of the time, what we're trying to do is mimic the fire that would have occurred here if we didn't intervene," said Flagler County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Jamey Burnsed.
Of course, firefighters holding a controlled burn have a number of things to consider before dropping that first bit of fuel and setting it alight.
They can't burn if it's too windy — and when they light, they calculate how the winds will spread their lines of flame — and they can't burn if it's too dry, or too wet.
Or if it's too hot: Trees can only handle so much heat before they begin to degrade, so 90-degree weather will reduce the amount of burning firefighters could do without harming the vegetation they're trying to help.
Prescribed burns on land with a lot of debris often begin after a season's first freeze or cold snap, when the vegetation is dormant, so that heat moving up the canopy from the burn is less likely to harm the pines, Burnsed said.
Once the amount of fuel on the ground is reduced, land managers can more safely burn in the spring and summer as well.
'Other things fall into place'
At Princess Place Feb. 26, the county planned to burn about 110 acres, handling 10-15 acres an hour.
The land will look black for a while, Flagler County Land Manager Mike Lagasse said, but new vegetation will start sprouting within two weeks of the burn.
"Most of the time, what we're trying to do is mimic the fire that would have occurred here if we didn't intervene."
— JAMEY BURNSED, Flagler County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief
From his perch on an all-terrain vehicle, Lagasse pointed through acres of knee-high shrubby oaks to a barely visible beige smear near the horizon that marked a pond bed covered with dried grass.
It would be easy to see from here if the forest were healthier, and the ground vegetation thinner, he explained.
Firefighters aren't removing every oak, he said. "We don't go in and cut every oak tree down," he said. "We don't want to shock people, or the ecosystem."
But once the shrubby stuff is out of the way, it will leave space for new vegetation to sprout — like new longleaf pines, or the thousands of wildflowers Lagasse said might cover the top of the dry lake bed after nutrients from the burn soak the soil.
Telfer said the county is trying to mimic a natural fire cycle, in which longleaf pine habitat burns every two to three years or so from lightning strikes.
"A success would be that in May 2018, you'd see us out here with another fire," Telfer said. Once the hardwoods and ground debris is burned out of the way, he said, the wire grass and pine will return, and that's the key to restoring the local ecosystem.
"If you can get those things right, a lot of other things fall into place," he said.