AVON PARK – It started around 11 a.m. with a 4-foot-wide circle of small flames nonchalantly dancing underneath a palmetto.
But within a half hour, a billowing bloom of black, white and gray smoke shot over hundred of feet in the air, and fire engulfed a series of palmetto bushes while the bases of pine trees send sparks and ash floating in the air.
From a distance and to the undiscerning eyes, the fire on part of 400 acres of pine and scrubland in the middle of the Avon Park Air Force Range looked like an out-of-control wildfire.
But it was actually the 62nd controlled burn and prescribed fire to have been purposely set ablaze on the 106,000-acre U.S. Air Force bombing and firing range.
Every year, from January to June, about 35,000 acres of wild land surrounding the range and base is set ablaze by prescribed fire specialists as a technique for forest management.
Naturally, fire is a natural in forests and grasslands and controlled fires can reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of more serious hotter fires.
The burns also help stimulate the germination of some native forest trees, thus renewing the forest.
And each year, as the burns are done -- particularly around the range -- a flood of calls from concerned residents, many unaware the fires are purposely set, come flooding into the range, fire stations and media outlets.
On the base, a crew of eight burn specialists, all trained in fire fighting, have been working in the heat, rain and wind, dodging critters and setting fires to lighting wicks on 2.2-gallon tanks containing diesel and gas. Three times a week from winter to just before June and the summer rainy season, they use fire to fight fire.
As Prescribed Fire Specialist Mark Calhoun with the Colorado State University Center for Environmental Management of Military Land based in Fort Collins, Colo. -- one of eight Avon Park-based specialists -- set fires, Range Supervisory Natural Resource Specialist Brent Bonner kept contact by radio with other specialists.
In addition to the university firefighters, Air Force Range civilians and workers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also get involved.
Standing near one of three All-Terrain Vehicles used to transport men and supplies to various sites, Bonner kept in radio contact as Frank Gibbs and Shawn Haggerty made their ways deeper into the bush and pine. Following a test burn, which determines wind direction and flammability conditions, the men set primary controlled-burn fires.
Bonner, who has worked at the Range for 10 years -- five as resource specialist -- said although range communications staff do their best to keep the public informed when burns are taking place, every year, the often-overwhelming look of burns always causes unwarranted concern.
He said to the north next to the Range is River Ranch Acres subdivision and camp areas, to the south are working ranches and dairies and to the east are homes around Arbuckle Creek, which are often exposed to light smoke or in sight of the fires.
“We have a very active prescribed-fire burning here. Our sort of isolation here helps. We don’t have a lot of neighbors on our fences, giving us the flexibility to do this,” he said. “People need to remember, 80 percent of smoke they see is coming from our controlled burns, reducing the risk of real wildfires.”
The fires also protects habitats for a menagerie of indigenous animals on the range by maintaining the treeless, dry prairies birds like the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrows inhabit.
Bonner said in March, 2,000 acres near Arbuckle Creek were burned and the beginnings of 2,000 acres were started Tuesday. He said most of the burns are set between March and July, the transition period between the dry and wet central Florida season.
“We try to mimic natural fire cycles; they’re ecological burns so we try to do as much as possible between the dry and wet seasons. Fifty to sixty percent of burns are set March to June,” he said, as white ashes fluttered around his head.
Bonner said each day, his staff posts locations and burn areas on Twitter. Found at “twitter@avonparkfire,” blogs on how burns may affect local communities are noted.
He said it’s part of his crew’s main mission: protecting the Air Force range from large, uncontrolled wildfires. He said 85 percent of the burns in the area should be done by the beginning of June and the rest by the end of that month.
Besides the fire works going on at the range, Melissa Yunas, wildfires mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service, said the Forest Service authorizes other prescribed burns to land managers, ranchers, citrus and sugarcane farmers for reasons depending on the land use.
Thursday, the forestry service gave Highlands County a total of 19 authorizations: 17 citrus piles and two land clearings.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, from Jan. 1 to April 27, there have been 738 wildfires on state lands and 10 on federal land. Around Florida, 15,499 acres were consumed and 849 federal land was engulfed.
In Highlands County, according to the Florida Forest Service, from Jan. 1 to May 1, there were 662 authorized fires and 839 authorized piles burning 53,117 acres; Statewide, there were 34,358 authorized fires and 53,917 piles, consuming 1,546,586 acres.
“When wildfire activity increases, the Florida Forest Service limits authorizations. It is a constant balance of good fires versus the management of bad wildfires,” said Yunas.
On the range, the goals of Bonner and his crew were to burn 400 acres, part of a 1,500-acre “block,” which is part of 36,000 acres for the fiscal year that began in November.
Haggerty, who has spent four years doing burns, said the job is challenging but rewarding in the long-run.
“This is my workplace. There’s always risk on this job and it requires effort. There’s nothing easy about it,” he said. “It’s hot but it’s important and I do it because I enjoy it.”
For information, see www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Wildfire/Current-Fire-Conditions or email email@example.com.