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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Slow Burn

Air Date: Week of

With its long-running drought, Florida leads the nation in prescribed fires, fires deliberately set to burn off low-lying brush in order to prevent wildfires raging out of control. Producer Bill George joined Florida Department of Environmental Protection biologist Parks Small and his crew in Wekiwa (weh-keye-wah) Springs State Park, near Orlando, where they planned to light a prescribed fire on 23 acres.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Voice on radio: "Seventy-five degrees. Relative humidity 56%. Wind southwest at 4 miles an hour.")

CURWOOD: The winds are low, the temperature is holding steady near 75%. There's moisture in the soil. Conditions are just right for a controlled burn. These fires happen on purpose. They're set to burn off low-lying brush that could fuel dangerous wildfires. Almost 275,000 acres this year have been devastated this year by wildfires in Florida alone. The long-running drought and below-normal rainfall are to blame. Florida leads the nation in controlled burns. Producer Bill George recently joined state biologist Parks Small and his crew in Wekiwa Springs State Park near Orlando. The plan: a burn on 23 acres.

(A car door slams; a motor starts)

SMALL: The majority of what'll be burning today is the understory plants: wire grass, small turkey oaks, other herbaceous plants and flowers that will burn. It will be a very fast-moving fire. Very low-intensity fire.

(Drums clank)

SMALL: These guys are prepping the equipment. And the tray up here is called a drip torch. It's a combination of diesel and gasoline. And that's what we use to ignite the fire. As they go along, they'll take a match. The tip of the drip torch has a cotton wick in it that soaks up the fuel, and that'll be kind of lit like a candle. And as you tip the drip torch over fuel will stream through the flame, hit the ground, catch the ground on fire.


SMALL: You talk about prescribed burners in 2 categories. Those that have lost fires and those that are about to lose them. It's really hard to control. You've really got to have a top-notch crew with top-notch training. You've got to have equipment that works on you. Talk about Murphy's Law. I tell you, Murphy was a prescribe burner. If it can go wrong on a fire, it will.


EMANUEL: My name is Brian Emanuel. I'm one of the biologists here at the park. I'm the incident commander of the burn bath. Right now we just lit a test fire, which is just to get an idea of what the wind's doing and how the fuels are burning. And if it looks good, then we'll proceed, turning this test fire into the controlled burn.


MAN: It's almost due south right now. A little southwest. You can see that one side of the fire is very low, and that's actually backing into the wind. The other side has picked up a little more intensity, and the wind is actually pushing it. We have a backing fire and a heading fire. And you see the wind shifted again, and we're (coughs) -- we're sucking some smoke. But using the heading fire technique, we can burn something much quicker. And you'll see fire, fire attracts itself. As this side's sucking oxygen and this side's sucking oxygen, they pull themselves together real quick. If you ever watched 2 boat waves coming together, if you ever water-skied, when the waves hit each other they get bigger. And that's what the fire's going to do, too, temporarily. And then it'll have burned all its fuel out.

(First voice on radio: "Andy Watkin" [name?] Second voice: "[inaudible], I can see it hitting the shrubs out there." First voice: "Look at it, it's coming toward you." Second voice: "I can see it forward; we're dropping back." First voice: "A little south, [inaudible] lighting any more." Sound of flames. Third voice: "Forty-three, we're getting spots ahead of the fire in the zone."

SMALL: And since the wind shifted...

(Second voice, on radio: "Now we're looking toward trying to get out of the zone there...")

SMALL: We're making sure that it's not going to get ahead of us. It's sort of in here that we can utilize for a black line if we have to. A black line is an area that has been burned out, so there's no more fuel to burn.


SMALL: Just basically burning all the fuel that's there, so once a fire gets there it's just going to stop.

(Sound of flames, helicopter rotors? Voices on radio: "The fire truck is behind it but the fire's flanking 'round on us fast. We're getting [inaudible]" Voices speak of the fire getting ahead.)

SMALL: We're on Plan B, which is not uncommon to go to. We're going to take our fire now, go down this road lighting a fire. We're going to put out the fire moving that way with water, and let this fire, we'll cut it off right here, because it's behaving a little squirrely on us. It's not what we anticipated. It's not what we want. We've got a campground right here, and if it was to do that at the campground, it could present some problems for us. So we'd rather put it out, pick a better day.


SMALL: We'll have to pick the pace up a little bit to stay ahead of this, okay? [Sounds like, "Lighten your strip, halfway the truck."] Watch this line of fire, as the air it's trying to breathe on is being eaten by this fire. You'll see the intensity pick up. Feel the wind behind you pick up? The wind was blowing this way. It's now, because this fire is actually sucking air into it, the wind direction's changed on us. That fire devil lifted that ember across the line. Here comes another one.

(Motors and fire, water)

SMALL: (Calling) Bill, give me another 100 feet of hose

!(Water shooting from hose)

SMALL: Take a drink of water, let's give it about 15 more minutes. Let some of this small stuff burn out, then we'll mop her up.


SMALL: This is one of the hardest parts of the job, but it's one of the most important, too, because if you don't do a proper mop-up, then there's a tendency to, if you get really slack, that there's the chance of the wind changes and blowing the embers into another section that hasn't been burned.

(Smaller motors)

SMALL: Look over here. So there's your -- does wildlife survive a fire? Yeah, the little bitty lizard right there in the black, found himself a little safe spot to ride it out. Tonight it'll be a feasting time for the deer. The deer come up and lick the ashes, full of minerals and stuff. There'll be tons of deer out here tonight. The warblers will be in here tomorrow eating the insects that are popping out of the trees because they got heated up.

(Water shooting from hose)

SMALL: It's always an adventure. You know, it's always something different. There's always something that can go wrong. I mean, there's just 5 seconds between a prescribed fire and a wildfire.

(Water shooting from hose)

CURWOOD: The sounds for our portrait of a controlled burn were collected by producer Bill George.



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