By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
If Harper Carroll had his druthers, he’d be setting fires. Not just any fires, but carefully controlled burns in our local scrub areas, including Hypoluxo, Rosemary, Seacrest, Yamato and High Ridge.
“Fire is as important as water in maintaining Florida’s habitats. It equals everything out,” says Carroll, who oversees 31,000 acres of natural area in Palm Beach County as supervisor for prescribed fire and fuels management at the Department of Environmental Resources Management.
His appreciation of fire may be surprising, given what runaway wildfires did in California and Colorado this past summer.
But Carroll’s burns are anything but runaway. They are carefully planned, supervised and certified by the Florida Fire Service, which annually allows landowners to burn more than 2 million acres statewide.
“Used wisely, fire is just like mowing the grass or weeding the garden. It cleans out the habitat and opens it to regrowth,” says Carroll, who in a busy year has planned and overseen 18 burns, predominantly in the northwestern part of the county.
That’s where preserves such as Hungryland and Loxahatchee sloughs are isolated enough for Carroll to burn there every two to three years.
“Flames aren’t the main concern with prescribed burns. It’s where to put the smoke,” says Carroll.
That’s a real problem in heavily developed South County, where strip malls, homes, highways, hospitals and schools have grown up around the natural areas. Here, prescribed fires are often inconvenient if not impossible.
In fact, the last burn in our area was at the Yamato Scrub in 2003.
Because land managers can only sporadically lay fire in the county’s populated areas, they need another tool for maintaining habitat and increasing biodiversity.
That’s where the Brontosaurus comes in.
No, it’s not a leftover from Jurassic Park but a 52,000-pound machine on tank-like treads. During the summer and fall it chomped through South County scrublands.
Its drum-shaped rotating head has 32 teeth that contractor Jacob Fretwell sharpens for about 30 minutes each morning. The head, attached to a 25-foot boom, can be rotated from 90 to 180 degrees.
We met up with Fretwell at the Hypoluxo Scrub, where he had spent two weeks thoughtfully clearing a 15-acre parcel of densely covered land. From his vantage point in the behemoth’s cockpit, Fretwell uses hydraulics controlled by joysticks to turn this chopping machine into a model of mechanical strength and precision.
Starting from the top, he can grind a towering cabbage palm into a pile of mulch, take the lower limbs off a slash pine or clear the underbrush while saving the gopher tortoise burrows beneath the growth.
“When we can’t do prescribed burns, we need the Brontosaurus and other heavy equipment in areas where people have prevented fires from occurring naturally and allowed nature to become overgrown,” says Carroll.
A $750,000 grant from FEMA, which began in March, is funding the effort. “It’s the first of its kind in the Southeast,” Carroll says.
Walking along a sandy path in Hypoluxo Scrub with the Brontosaurus roaring in the background, Barbara Bobsein, senior environmental analyst for PBC Environmental Resources
Management, points out how shrubs such as saw palmettos, gopher apples and cocoplums densely cover shady areas under a thick canopy of oaks, cabbage palms and slash pines.
The sun-loving plants necessary for feeding and protecting many smaller animal species, including the gopher tortoise, are stunted by shade.
What’s more, as the canopy grows, the shrub plants are joined by a thick layer of fallen pine needles, or duff, as well as fallen branches and fronds from the trees.
This makes our natural areas inhospitable to animals such as the gopher tortoise, which needs low-growing grasses and berries for food. Or think of the scrub lizards, which hunt in the sandy flats but find safe harbor under bushes: Overgrowth can crowd them out.
In fact, the scrub lizard was nearly extinct in our area until it was reintroduced two years ago by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says Bobsein. Today these lizards, noted for the long brown stripe down their sides and their big toes, are easy to identify scurrying across the sand.
Dense underbrush and heavy canopy also are fuel for uncontrollable fires ignited by careless visitors or lightning.
Although the Brontosaurus is much easier to control than the smoke from a prescribed burn, chopping doesn’t work quite as well as a burn when it comes to restoring and maintaining habitat.
“It’s a surrogate for fire, not a replacement,” says Carroll.
That’s because the chopping leaves a thick layer of rough mulch instead of just the ash remaining after a fire. That mulch shades the ground until it decomposes. Lifting it a bit, you’ll discover it also retains moisture that will cause lots of smoke if accidentally ignited.
Prescribed fire, on the other hand, turns living matter into nutrients that quickly enter the soil, making it much more fertile. And without a layer of compost, the ground is immediately opened and exposed to sunlight that promotes regrowth and habitat.
But lucky for the land and its managers, mechanical chopping doesn’t preclude the use of fire. In fact, it can make it safer, explains Carroll.
After all, an induced fire is easier to control and will burn at a lower temperature when chopping has already removed much of the underbrush and excess canopy.
In fact, here at Hypoluxo Scrub when Carroll and Bobsein select what needs to be chopped, they keep in mind that one day a controlled burn may be possible. To prepare, they might choose to remove the younger pine trees sprouting up at the base of an older specimen.
During a prescribed burn or even a wildfire, that would prevent the newer growth from helping flames jump into the older tree’s canopy and would save the more mature tree from destruction.
“Although chopping is an excellent tool, fire is usually better. My goal is to put fire safely on the land to promote biodiversity,” Carroll says.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.