Hoping to ward off wildfires, Ag Commissioner imposes new restrictions on prescribed burning

Prescribed burn at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Source: Alan Cressler via Flickr

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried imposed fresh restrictions Tuesday on prescribed burning and promised to increase penalties for people who violate the rules.

Henceforth, forestry officials will consider air quality and wind speed when signing off on controlled burns and will install a computerized dispatch system to improve coordination between emergency responders, Fried said during a news conference in the state Capitol.

“These are the first changes to the process in more than 30 years. I believe they are important and necessary steps to enhance public safety, reduce human impact, and appropriately regulate this practice,” Fried said.

“Let me be clear. This is the first step in this process, not the last. Agriculture has used prescribed burning to manage land for hundreds of years. But we must always be thinking of ways to improve the process like these and others,” she said.

The Florida Forest Service, which Fried oversees, authorizes some 100,000 prescribed burns encompassing some 2.3 million acres each year, director Jim Karels said. The idea is to clear fields for replanting and forest undergrowth that might help wildfires spin out of control.

Prescribed burning is “an important sustainability tool to manage land and soil for agriculture” and is “critical for public safety,” Fried said. “Without prescribed burns, we could face more wildfire seasons like 1998, when half a million acres across Florida burned out of control. And, with more extreme heat expected from climate change, we just can’t afford that.”

The need is particularly critical in the Panhandle, she said, where Hurricane Michael last October felled trees across more than 2.8 million acres – including 346,911 acres that suffered catastrophic damage.

Additionally, sugar growers burn excess growth in their cane fields to ease their harvests. Fried said she would help corporate producers shift toward “green harvesting by manufacturing and purchasing sugarcane biomass.” Officials conferred as recently as Monday with the industry, she said. “They knew that this was coming and they will adapt.”

The new regulations include a mandatory 80-acre buffer between wild areas and sugarcane fields when conditions are dry and windy. Burning now is banned at night and during Florida’s morning fogs. Landowners will have 72 hours – reduced from 96 – to extinguish muck fires or the state will step in. These last involve drained lake bottoms or bogs rich in organic, and burnable, material.

Fried promised additional changes in the future, possibly including truncating the burning season, increased compliance checks and training, and bigger fines and penalties “for those who choose to not follow these regulations.” Like Florida’s burning regulations, those penalties “haven’t been touched in a very long time,” she said.

Update:

The Sierra Club, which has been campaigning to ban burn-offs of sugar fields, welcomed the regulations but said they didn’t go far enough to protect ethnically diverse, poorer agricultural communities from smoke and ash.

“Agricultural burning used by sugar growers to decrease their harvesting costs cannot and must not be likened to the prescribed burning that keeps Florida wildlands healthy,” Patrick Ferguson, leading the organization’s effort, said in a written statement.

“To label pre-harvest sugar field burning as ‘prescribed burning’ and a ‘sustainability tool’ is to unapologetically proclaim that it is good for us and the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

“When [Fried’s department] announces a plan to phase out sugar field burning once and for all, and the switch to modern, sustainable green harvesting, we will celebrate.”

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