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