‘Rx’ burns: Rookery Bay crews torch acres of woodland in prescribed burn

Lance Shearer

Sometimes, a fire in a forest is a good thing. Resource managers at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve burned six acres of pine uplands and native scrub in East Naples Wednesday, continuing their program of prescribed burns during the optimum months of January through March.

The area burned, part of a buffer zone of wild land between the real estate developments along the East Tamiami Trail and Rookery Bay itself, had not been touched by fire, and was due for a burn, said Greg Curry.

Resource management staff at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, working with other agencies, conducted a prescribed burn on wilderness lands near reserve headquarters on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

“This is a ‘first entry’ burn,” said Curry, the burn boss – that really is his title – for Rookery Bay. “These pines have not seen any fire. There are no visible scars (from previous burns), so the understory vegetation has a high fuel load.

“We do the burns to reduce the fuel load. This reduces the risk of wildfires from lightning strikes or human ignition, improves the habitat for wildlife, and also protects electric transmission lines,” he said.

On a first entry burn, in an area filled with dry underbrush, the crews are careful not to let the fire become too massive, or it can become a “massive head fire,” destroying 90 percent or more of the slash pine trees and other vegetation and becoming more difficult to control.

In wildfires, the fire itself has all the advantages, starting during times of high winds, in areas with severely limited access, and getting well-established before crews begin to fight them. Prescribed burns – “we hate to say ‘controlled burns,’ because you can’t really control fire,” said Curry – put all the advantages on the side of the crews conducting them. First, and key, they wait for the right conditions.

Weather, especially wind, is critical to keeping a burn “controlled,” or at least burning as prescribed, and winds here tend to shift as the day progresses.

“It started out from the northeast this morning, and that’s ideal,” said Curry, as it blows the smoke from the fire out over the Gulf of Mexico, rather than over the urban area. At midday, though, the wind shifted 180 degrees, just as the crew was preparing to close down, but trying to get a few more acres included in the day’s burn.

Curry worked with a crew of firefighters and trainees from agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, and the Prescribed Fire Training Center, which sent workers from all over the country. Kira Gilman was from Billings, Montana, Dana McCormick was from Washington state, and Mike Elles was from Idaho.

The three are learning to conduct prescribed, or “Rx” burns, and at the same time how to fight wildfires. They used drip torches to ignite brush with diesel oil, along firebreaks precut by a Bobcat hauled in along the bone-jarring access roads. Hoses had been laid out for hundreds of yards along the firebreaks to allow the crew to tamp down the flames as necessary. Stan Adwell of FPL, another agency coordinating on the burn, monitored the blaze from his all-terrain truck along the power company’s right of way, to make sure the fire didn’t impact the high-power lines carrying electricity to nearby communities.

“That’s a 138-kilowatt line along here,” he said, explaining that with powerful fires, the ash and soot could trip the circuit and cut off electricity.

Overhead, an aircraft circled, “probably from the Forest Service,” said Rookery Bay communications coordinator Renee Wilson, with the pilot also monitoring the blaze.

Wearing heavy protective gear, and each equipped with a two-way radio and a high-visibility yellow jacket, the crew members were hot and sweaty, heavily smudged with ashes and charcoal. Catholic or not, everyone was daubed for Ash Wednesday. They took a moment to wolf down an energy bar, surrounded by swirling smoke and tongues of flame.

In all, Curry hopes to burn approximately 500 acres by the end of March, with the next target being the area of the “Snail Trail,” right across Henderson Creek from the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center, or ELC. They are over halfway to their goal. The efforts of his prescribed burn crews help keep the wild areas near our dwellings healthy for their natural inhabitants, and greatly reduce the chance those areas will burn in devastating uncontrolled blazes like those seen during last year’s wildfire season.

“The vegetation here is used to fire, and deals well with it,” said Wilson. She pointed to new green shoots coming out on saw palmetto plants in an area that had been burned just two weeks before. Among them, birds foraged, and the flower of a duck potato plant had already blossomed.

The Rookery Bay ELC is located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Blvd. shortly before U.S. 41. For more information, call 239-530-5940 or go online to register at rookerybay.org.