Burning Questions

Are you curious about UCF’s use of prescribed fire to reduce wildfire risk and promote biodiversity in our campus natural lands? Well you came to the right place!

Historically, the area that is now home to UCF was a combination of pine flatwoods, scrub, sandhill, and wetlands. These incredibly diverse ecosystems not only tolerate fire, but they depend upon it to maintain the high levels of biodiversity and endemism that occur here.  These systems evolved with frequent low intensity fires caused predominantly by summer lightning storms.  When humans began to suppress fire, these systems transitioned to densely vegetated areas that produced a buildup of large amounts of flammable material, or fuel loads, that increase the threat of catastrophic wildfire.

It was not until 2004, when a wildfire occurred in the Arboretum cypress swamp that the administration decided to institute a prescribed fire program on campus, and we have been blazing new ground ever since! The fire program launched in 2005, and in that year two successful prescribed burns were conducted on a total of 39 acres. Since that time we have successfully burned 621 acres in many of the ecosystems on campus.

What other benefits do we derive from our fire program, aside from protecting the University, our faculty, staff students, and neighbors from uncontrolled wildfires? Prescribed fire allows us to safely and effectively reintroduce fire in a controlled way, reintroducing a disturbance regime that benefits many of the plants and animals that depend on the native ecosystems of this region.

Seasonality of fire is important. Most prescribed fires in Florida take place in winter. These dormant season burns allow us to reduce fuel loads and kill many of the woody species that have built up from many years of fire suppression.  Weather patterns are more predicable in the winter making it safer to burn dense vegetation controllably. However, most natural fires historically occurred in summer.  These summer or growing season burns promote the highest levels of biodiversity, but in a fire suppressed landscape they can only be done in areas where fuel loads have been reduced by winter burns first.

We have been able to conduct two successful summer season burns in the Arboretum in areas that we had burned multiple times in winter. In both these areas, biodiversity has increased dramatically, with large increases in native grasses and wildflowers.  Because of our success, UCF is now recognized as a leader in burning in complex urban/suburban settings, which will be essential to maintaining native species in our increasingly urban landscapes.  Our campus natural lands are becoming the beautiful, fire-maintained, biologically diverse native Florida ecosystems that they once were, and we hope we have answered your burning questions!

Comments are closed.