Call them ‘lessons in fire’

Destruction by flames in North Port followed by burst of new vegetation, offering a reminder of the value of nature’s burns

Sarah Lockhart stands amid invasive Brazilian pepper at the entrance to her lot in North Port. Photo by Fran Palmeri

This spring a huge wildfire erupted in the pine flatwoods of North Port. I had been walking roadsides there with Sarah Lockhart, who had just bought a small lot off Raintree Boulevard. A graduate of Eckerd College, she recently completed a master’s of environmental science at Duke University and then returned to Florida.

She had hoped to restore her lot to its original splendor by removing exotic trees and shrubs. That would encourage the return of the “natives.”

This is the view through a culvert under the highway into pine flatwoods on the other side. Photo by Fran Palmeri

We had not found much on our walk. The land, which has been platted but not developed, is quite sterile — partly a result of the canals put in years ago, which altered the flow of rainfall and thinned out vegetation. Construction of the roads led to a rampant takeover by Brazilian pepper trees and other exotic plants, which drove out native wildflowers and shrubs such as blueberry, which grows naturally in the pinewoods.

Before the fire: Native slash pines and cabbage palms stand in the background, with exotic Brazilian pepper trees along the road. Photo by Fran Palmeri

A week after the fire, when I went down to look around the burn site, the ground was still warm. I was delighted to see that the pepper trees had been destroyed but — sad to say — slash pines, sabal palms and saw palmetto also had been consumed in their entirety.

After the fire: Everything shows signs of having been torched, except one pine. Photo by Fran Palmeri

Saw palmetto and grass were already coming back, and I was cheered to find a gopher tortoise “eating his greens.” For us, when fire erupts, it is a matter of “Everybody to the exits”; for the tortoise, it was a matter of heading home to his large underground burrow, where he could hunker down while the flames roared overhead.

How I longed to ask what is was like, but I am sure he would have said, “Just business as usual!” A member of a keystone species in Florida, he and a host of other animals take refuge in tortoise burrows during times of fire.

Birds eat pepper tree berries and spread them throughout the landscape. Photo by Fran Palmeri

It is difficult for us to accept the fact that fire is as much a part of Florida’s natural cycle as sun and rain. Some wildflowers, such as Bartram’s ixia, will not bloom without it. In the 1930s, a primary duty of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Highlands Hammock, one of Florida’s first state parks, was to put out fires.

Before the land was populated, wildfires spread across the peninsula each spring and summer, revitalizing the soil, keeping down pest insects and opening up areas to new growth. Today about 30 wildfires are burning somewhere on the peninsula. What makes them different is that they are brought under control by the Forest Service to protect towns and cities, pastures and roads.

Ten days after the fire, the sand is still warm, but saw palmetto is starting to green up. Photo by Fran Palmeri

In these pine flatwoods of North Port, fire had been suppressed for many years, which had led to the creation of a large “ load” of leaves on the forest floor. Since at that point we had had no real rain since last September, it was no surprise that the wildfire raced through 3,100 acres of woods and crossed under Interstate 75 before it could be brought under control.

Business as usual: This gopher tortoise is out eating his ‘greens.’ He and other animals survived the conflagration in his roomy burrow, which was probably 8 or 9 feet underground. Photo by Fran Palmeri

These days, in an attempt to mimic Mother Nature, another kind of fire is set by trained professionals on public lands. Recently, I walked the Gopher Trail at Lake Manatee State Park, where I was greeted by a field full of Florida Alicia, a rare wildflower brought back to life by a prescribed burn. The tract was filled with wildflowers and attendant bees, butterflies and other pollinators. It had rained during the night and the birds were out in force. Eastern towhees called back and forth. Woodpeckers hammered on snags and, as always, the “Cheer, cheer, cheer” of cardinals could be heard in the background. The burn created a fair imitation of the paradise that has seduced newcomers to Florida from the very beginning.

Rare Bartram’s ixia comes back to life after a wildfire in St John’s County in north Florida. Photo by Fran Palmeri

It made me feel more optimistic about what may happen in North Port. Sarah and I will be monitoring her lot and surrounding areas to see what grows back. Because this was a “crown fire” that took out many of the pines, the aftermath will be different. But saw palmetto is already coming back. Mother Nature may surprise us.

Wildflowers bloom along the Gopher Trail at Lake Manatee State Park after a controlled burn. Photo by Fran Palmeri
Alicia, an endemic wildflower, has been brought back by the fire. Photo by Fran Palmeri
A Florida male towhee — with his distinctive eye ring — lives in this scrub. Photo by Fran Palmeri
The Gopher Trail shows evidence of the fire, with burnt oaks and pines. Slash pines are fairly fire-resistant. This was not a crown fire, as was the one at the Raintree site. Photo by Fran Palmeri
Elliot’s milkpea, fed by nutrients released by the flames, attracts butterflies. Photo by Fran Palmeri