University of Florida

Fire and Habitat

Most people think of fire as a destructive force, but fire can be important for maintaining habitat and wildlife population in the natural environment.

Prescribed Fires vs. Wildfires

Florida’s wildfire season occurs from mid-April through July. Most of these fires are set by lightning, and these were frequent until suppression policies came into effect. These natural wildfires burned at a low intensity and covered large areas where rivers and wetlands were spread out.

In contrast, prescribed wildfires are set on purpose. Many land managers use them to remove dense vegetation and reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires.

Prescribed fires are most often set between December and March when wind patterns are predictable and the days are cool. Prescribed fires set during the lightning and natural fire season behave more like natural wildfires and are difficult to control.

Dependent Ecosystems

Many Florida habitats only exist due to the presence of wildfires. Some habitats are caused by frequent fires, others by a few big fires decades apart.

  • Longleaf Pine-Turkey Oak Sandhills
    Fires every 2–4 years maintain pine dominance and wiregrass.
  • Sand Pine-Scrub Oak Complexes
    High-intensity fires every 10–60 years maintain pine-oak mixtures.
  • Pine-Saw Palmetto Flatwoods
    Fires every 2–4 years keep shrubs out of the understory and maintain pines and wire and bluestem grasses.
  • Rockland Pine Forests
    Fires every 3–7 years allow important herbaceous natives to grow and keep hardwood hammock species from invading.
  • Wet Dry Prairies
    Fires every 2–5 years maintain grasses and herbaceous plants and reduce shrub invasion.

Fires in these ecosystems keep the balance of specific plant species intact, providing specialized habitat for certain animals. Gopher tortoises, red cockaded woodpeckers, key deer, scrub jays, quail, and Sherman’s fox squirrels are just some of the species that rely on fires to preserve their habitat.

Fires can kill animals, but do not pose a significant threat to wildlife. High-intensity, uncontrollable fires pose a greater risk, but even then, mortality is low. Mammals are highly mobile and avoid the fire, and ground-nesting birds will often re-nest.

Benefits of Fire

Fires are important for land management, and prescribed burns can provide the same benefits as a wildfire but with less risk.

Fire in the ecosystem:

  • Promotes flowering and fruiting of plant species.
  • Improves nutritional quality and nutrient cycling of soil.
  • Maintains habitat conditions for plants and animals.
  • Creates “mosaic” habitats–patches of different types of habitats within a larger area.
  • Prevents the accumulation of highly flammable dead vegetation, which can cause devastating wildfire conditions.

While land may look like a charred wasteland after a fire, animals and plants return in abundance. Fire-adapted plants often grow to pre-fire levels within a year after being burned. Tender shoots in revegetating areas will attract animals that feed on the nutritious sprouts. The perceived habitat degradation and wildlife displacement are only temporary.

Fires are a natural and important force for Florida’s environment. Prescribed and low-intensity fires can prevent devastating wildfires that can invade rural and urban communities. Using fire as a land management tool can reduce risk to human communities while renewing wildlife habitats.

For more information on prescribed fires and reducing your fire risk, contact your local Extension office and the Fire in Florida website.

Adapted and excerpted from:

G.W. Tanner, W.R. Marion, and J.J. Mullahey, Understanding Fire: Nature’s Land Management Tool (CIR1018), UF/IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department (rev. 10/2011).

M. Main and G. Tanner, Effects of Fire on Florida’s Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat (WEC 137), UF/IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department (rev. 11/2012).

Prescribed fire

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