Refuge plans new controlled burns

By Steve Estes

The National Key Deer Refuge is planning at least one controlled burn on Big Pine Key sometime in the next two weeks.

The last controlled burn the refuge hosted in September of last year resulted in a wildfire that burned more than 100 acres instead of the planned 22 acres, threatening homes in the Pine Heights subdivision and forcing an evacuation of residents.

Tuesday’s announcement of the planned burns is aimed at two separate burns, but more than likely only one will occur in the time period, said Refuge Manager Anne Morkill.

“The priority burn is a 10-acre unit east of Key Deer Blvd, between Big Pine Avenue and Mahogany Lane,” she said.

A secondary target would be at least part of a 90-acre tract west of Pine Heights along the waterfront.

“If we burn that area, it would probably be a top or bottom of the tract burn, and we’d come back and get the other one at a later date,” she said.

Residents were highly upset with the refuge last year when the planned burn got out of control, scorching acreage surrounding the iconic Blue Hole on Big Pine Key.

As a result of that burn, the refuge has changed its ignition parameters to make it harder to find the right conditions.

“Refuge staff is monitoring weather conditions for days with a high probability of rainfall accumulations of more than a half-inch,” wrote Refuge Fire Specialist Dana Cohen.

That is one of the new guidelines the refuge is using, at least a half-inch of rainfall in the preceding 24 hours and a cumulative rainfall of more than one inch in the preceding three days.

The runaway fire last year was the result of what Cohen called a weather anomaly that dropped the relative humidity very quickly coupled with a rapid increase in wind speed.

Plans now call for at least 50 percent humidity before the burn is ignited, up from 40 percent, with higher levels preferable.

Morkill said another of the new parameters is a wind speed of less than 12 miles per hour where last year speeds of 20 miles per hour were acceptable.

According to Cohen, wind direction is also a parameter. The wind must be blowing in a direction that takes the smoke from the fire away from human development as much as possible, which in this case would require a wind out of the southwest.

If the second burn unit is also attempted, which it won’t be in one burn, assured Morkill, the wind would have to come out of the east or northeast to avoid human development.

“Prescribed burns are designed to both create defensible space in the event of unwanted wildfires as well as for wildlife habitat management,” wrote Cohen. “Prescribed fires are an integral part of management of pine rockland habitat on the National Key Deer Refuge.”

Cohen says that the weather patterns thus far in 2012 have resulted in higher-than-average amounts of rainfall, a crucial element to prescribed fire plans of the refuge this season.

The typical burn season coincides with the rainy season but ends in about September after which conditions are rarely optimal. The refuge has announced plans to burn the 10 acres off Key Deer Blvd. and the total of 90 acres west of Pine Heights if possible this season.

The objectives of the refuge fire program are diverse, says Cohen.

The fires provide protection to private property and human lives against uncontrolled wildfires that may result in an otherwise uncleared vegetation. It also provides less fuel load for an unanticipated fire by burning off ground cover. Another goal of prescribed fire is to continue biological diversity of plant life in the refuge. And yet another is to maintain habitat for endangered plant and animal species.

Cohen says that the Key Deer will benefit form the burns because the habitat area is restored and they will feed on the new plant shoots that arise from the ashes of the controlled burn.

Refuge management has promised that it will give residents as much notice as possible that a burn is to take place through a variety of media, including this and other newspapers, radio outlets, posted signs before the planned burn and door-to-door notifications of residential neighborhoods that could be affected by the burn.

“We know that public notice was an issue last year,” said Morkill. “We will do a better job of that.”

The actual day of the burn might come with relatively short notice, however, because if the conditions are right and crews are in place, the refuge may only know a day or so in advance that the fire will be ignited.

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