DoF: Florida’s Fire Fulcrum

§ Like Florida itself the Division of Forestry began late, struggled to become normal, and then emerged, by the third millennium, as both exceptional and exemplary.  In the institutional ecology of fire’s management in Florida the DoF is the keystone species.  The system could not have evolved properly without it, and once established it has remained the indispensable agency.

When authorized in 1927, Florida state forestry resembled a typical entry state into the Clarke-McNary Program.  It inherited a landscape that, as the expression went, was cut over, grazed over, and burned over.  The old forests were shattered, new ones struggled to establish themselves.  The Florida Forest Service committed to fire control and reforestation.  The first state forester, Harry Lee Baker, came by way of the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Virginia.  The Dixie Crusaders roared through to help shill the message of fire exclusion.  In 1931 the County Forest Fire Control law authorized matching funds by which the state and counties might pay for fire protection – in effect, an internal Clarke-McNary program for the state.[i]

A DoF complex in central Florida. By such means was Florida's fire landscape pacified.

During the Depression the Florida story resembled the southern states generally.  There were losses and gains.  Land fell tax delinquent, so some counties withdrew from formal protection, but other lands were acquired by the federal government for CCC use, and these became the basis for a network of state forests and parks.  Myakka River began the process in 1934; in 1939, the Blackwater River joined through a lease transfer from the Department of Agriculture.  In 1932, 1934, and 1935 big fires ripped through what remained of the woods or what had patchily regrown.  The arrival of a pulp industry lent an additional shoulder to the effort to replenish the pineries.  The state gradually built up its contract counties and its capacity along lines that mirrored the national story in which more land came under protection and suppression improved.  By 1950, while fires continued to sweep 35-50% of unprotected lands, they burned only 2-3% of protected lands.  In 1941 the Florida Forest Service officially accepted controlled burning (the U.S. Forest Service followed, in Florida, two years later), although burning did not emerge as an organized program until 1949.  Out of necessity the state was slowly shuffling from rear guard to vanguard.[ii]

§ In the postwar era it began to boom – and to diverge.  It extended fire protection over an additional 5,000,000 acres and beefed up its plows, radios, lookouts, and aircraft.  Major fires struck in 1955 and 1956, further boosting its mechanical capabilities and strengthening ties with cooperators.  By 1958 the FFS extended its aegis over 46 of Florida’s 67 counties, which along with the state forests totaled some 16 million of the state’s estimated 21 million actual or potential forested acres.  The feds helped with the rural fire defense program and the excess equipment program that funneled used military vehicles through the FFS for fire control.  By 1967 56 counties were enrolled, and following a mandate from the state legislature, by 1972 all were.

A profile in protection: more lands under jurisdiction, less land burned by wildfire.

Yet even amid the mid-decadal drought of the 1950s, one of the most severe on record, the amount of land burned by wildfire waned, even as amount burned by prescription waxed.  Aggressive, modernizing fire control, supplemented by prescribed burning, had rudely matched the returning or replanted woods and their rekindled fires.  And the FFS assumed sole responsibility for all open burning, whether for forestry, farming, ranching, or clearing.  The agency controlled both fire control and fire use.  As with most states Florida forestry did not have authorization to manage private land, but where most state forestry agencies could legally only put fires out, Florida’s had a say in how they were set.  Almost uniquely it could manage fire on private land.

At this point the Florida story split into exceptionalism.  In 1969, following a new State constitution, the FFS was reorganized and renamed the Division of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  But the real mover and shaker was the astonishing transformation of the landscape.  The conversion of rural Florida into urban Florida continued unrelentingly, and in a muted echo the state itself began to buy land for nature protection and public use.  The Land Acquisition Trust Fund was created in 1963; the Environmentally Endangered Lands program in 1972; the Conservation and Recreation Lands program in 1979; Save Our Coasts and Save Our Rivers (1981); and Preservation 2000 (1991); Florida Forever (2000).  The state lands were assigned to four agencies for management; the largest block fell to the Division of Forestry, reorganized just in time to accommodate the windfall.

The three trends converged to make the DoF a triple threat.  It could hit fires, run with prescribed burning, and field-manage state forests.  Forestry agencies in other states had fire protection responsibilities, some had lands to oversee, and a few did controlled burning on a regular basis; but none intertwined them as the DoF did into a single agency, much less with a force that made the program a national presence.  In particular, much as Florida’s land acquisition program anticipated the threat to nature conservation, so DoF foresaw threats to prescribed fire and moved to head them off.  Just as urban development began to squeeze rural lands, so it started to strangle open burning.  In the 1970s prescribed fire reached an annual high of 3.9 million acres before restrictions caused it to fall to half that amount.

A double crisis boiled up.  On state forests and parks, land management meant fire management, and fire management meant prescribed burning, so any restriction kept the DoF from effectively caring for those forests.  On private lands for which it had contractual responsibility for fire protection, DoF could not deal with the rank overgrowth that made fires explosive (and firefighting ineffective), and the most economical and environmentally benign treatment was controlled burning.  During the 1970s the growth of state lands and private suburbs both shot up; the DoF reckoned that more prescribed fire was needed or more wildfire would sweep protected and built landscapes equally.  In 1971 and 1974 wildfire burned more acres on protected lands than anytime since records began in 1928.  So even as national pressures made prescribed burning trickier by the year, the Florida DoF moved to ensure it could apply fire more or less freely.  An escalation of legislation to promote prescribed fire proceeded in tandem with bills to expand protected land.

§ These seemingly parallel lines crossed in 1977.  The new landowners purchased fire-prone sites as earlier buyers had swamp land.  They did not understand the threat posed to communities hacked out of rough and scrub that was then allowed to regrow; and many were absentee owners, holding the land for future retirement.  The untended land encouraged untended fires.  A few breakout fires that threatened communities (and hence the state’s migration economy) got the attention of the legislature.

The outcome was the Hawkins Bill of 1977 which allowed the DoF to do the burning that landowners were unable or unwilling to do on their own.  In effect, overgrown plats were treated as a public nuisance, not unlike vacant lots in a city.  No other forestry agency in any state had anything like such authorization.  In a place often prickly about defending private property, it was a remarkable concession to the unremitting pressure fire placed on Florida life.  The DoF added thousands of acres to its annual routine of burning.  Even so, the area burned continued to sag.  More lands were up for burning, and fewer got burned.

The reasons are many, and they heightened during a tumultuous decade.  Not least among them was the suddenness of the transformation.  New forests and parks needed administration, infrastructure, plans, experienced staff, all of which took time, and each year added to a backlog of burning.  New responsibilities under the Hawkins Bill meant more work for the existing apparatus.  The national environmental legislation over clean water, air, endangered species, and so on that flung out like sparks from a wetstone during the 1970s created uncertainty, which led to pauses, which let marginal lands fall to the wayside of prescribed fire.  Meanwhile wildfire returned in force to open, close, and define the middle of the coming decade.  Each affected a different region of the state, but Florida overall could not avoid them.  In 1985 the fires roared out of the rough and into Palm Coast, compelling evacuations.  That got political attention.  The fires were both a warning and a distraction; they said the fire organization was not keeping pace with development, and they pushed emergency service ahead of prescribed burning.

Even as a sense of urgency grew, so did restrictions.  The old habits – burning done on a kind of open range – were being fenced in by a new society stringing houses and shopping malls through the countryide, and by an encroaching legal environment built on the barbed wire of liability.  In 1987, attempting to avoid a liability-driven shutdown, the DoF commenced a program to certify prescribed burners.  Then in 1990 the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Midyette v. Madison that both landowners and contractors doing the burning for them were liable for damages resulting from escaped fire and smoke that, in this instance, led to a highway fatality.

The punch and pace of threats would have deflated most organizations – did overwhelm almost all states, and even the federal fire agencies scrambled to do what their fire policies admonished.  But once again, Florida went beyond merely reacting and sought to promote good burning.  A blue-ribbon committee consolidated concerns into a single bill, the Prescribed Burning Act of 1990.  The legislation is remarkable on two counts.  One, it created a disposition to burn.  It identifies burning as a property right, considers it in the public interest if conducted under appropriate rules, and limits liability to “general negligence.”  The second innovation was to leave to DoF the determination of what the guidelines and suitable rules might be.  The Division of Forestry became the keystone agency for responsible burning; this applied even to federal lands because smoke management was a state task under the Clean Air Act.  A landowner could burn on his own but had no legal protection.  A landowner who submitted to DoF guidelines for training and authorization did have protection.

A geographic snapshot of the 1998 fire season. Courtesy Florida DoF.

Still, the burning lagged.  Unburned preserves became ecologically disheveled, wildfires lurked in the urban rough.  In 1998 the reckoning came.  The year began with record floods, then flipped into record drought.  The first fire broke out on the Apalachicola National Forest on May 25.  Two months later 2,300 fires had raged through half a million acres, burned down 300 homes, forced the evacuation of Flagler County, and essentially commandeered the national fire suppression apparatus.  Some 10,000 firefighters from 47 states were drawn into Florida, along with almost two-thirds of the national air tanker fleet.  It was a larger firefighting force than had descended on Yellowstone a decade earlier.  Fire was not simply a matter of ecological stewardship or of purely local concern; it thrust itself into the face of government at the highest levels as an issue of public safety.  Governor Lawton Chiles established a multi-organization committee to review the crisis and offer recommendations.  Strong aftershocks struck in 1999 and 2001.

The upshot was an overhaul of fire protection.  This was a normal response; it’s what any political entity would do.  What made Florida different was that fire officials sought to direct attention to where they believed the greatest need was – prescribed burning.  This was not so much a matter of more money as more freedom to operate.  In 1999 the Prescribed Burning law was amended to replace “general negligence” with “gross negligence.”  In practical terms this created a presumption to burn.  Everywhere else fire’s suppression was the default setting; in Florida, the default option was to burn; suppression happened when the burning stumbled.  But the burning bears no more relationship to Cracker open-range firing than an office park does to a pine island.  The burning operates under a dense halter of institutional discipline controlled by the DoF.

The burner, the burn, the oversight – the DoF certifies, approves, and sets guidelines.  To qualify for protection, a prospective burner became certified by completing a training course, submitting a prescription for review, conducting the approved burn, and having the outcome inspected.  There are limits set by the time of day, by smoke dispersion, by drought conditions, by capabilities to respond to an escape.  Practitioners grumble that Tallahassee does not understand the peculiarities of local settings, that the opportunities for burning continue to shrink, that burning gets harder every year.  Yet few are reckless enough to burn without the extraordinary protection afforded by the Prescribed Fire Act.  One fatality from a smoke-blinded car wreck could bankrupt them.[iii]

Requests to burn arrive typically by phone as a day presents opportunities.  The DoF sets as an internal standard that it will respond within three minutes.  When the day is right, the requests to district offices flood in.  In 2010 requests for permits came in rushes to burn pasture, stubble, sugarcane, citrus, pine plantations, habitat for wildlife and habitat for newcomers.  There were fires to renew land and fires to clear it for paving.  Some were broadcast burns, some were piles.  Altogether, the DoF authorized 77,076 fires to burn 2,647,590 acres and 123,116 piles.  It would like to see those numbers double.

No one is wholly happy with the system or with the amount burned.  Every thoughtful observer would like fewer restrictions and more fire, and those accustomed to more free-wheeling times often blame the imposition of the system for the lengthening lag in untreated land.  Even the DoF experiences the fire gap: it is one thing to buy land, another to manage it.  The goal is to burn on an average rotation of 5-7 years, but many lands could use annual or biennial burns, and even a couple of missed years can mean the difference between containing or losing a wildfire or being able to reintroduce fire.  But everyone recognizes that without the legal protection offered by the law they would be out of business, and without the prescribed burning it encourages the land would be turned over to lightning, arson, and accident.  Like Florida’s land acquisition program, the system wobbles between aspiration and desperation.

As wildfire goes as a percentage of land protected, the amount prescribed burned has increased. Numbers, however, give only authorized acres, not necessarily the acres actually burned. Data source: DoF

§ By the 21st century Florida had established itself at the apex of one of three dominant fire cultures in the country and had evolved into a regional and national leader on matters pertaining to prescribed fire.  Through a variety of innovations – the Prescribed Fire Act, the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils – its influence seeped throughout the southeast and then the nation.  Even more astonishing has been the role of the Florida Division of Forestry.

As with most state forestry bureaus it had responsibility for fire protection.  Unlike most it also held significant lands of its own to manage.  And like only a few others, it committed to prescribed fire.  (The only comparable states, in fact, were neighbors influenced by the Florida example.)  While the Prescribed Fire Act was possible because a community of shared interests campaigned for it, it required a broker to coax it into law and an administrator to oversee its provisions.  The DoF did that job.

Nationally, the federal government had built the infrastructure for fire management, as it did a highway system; and it was the Clarke-McNary Act that helped state forestry take root in Florida.  But the federal presence in Florida was modest, and split among agencies.  Most forests remained in private hands as did the vast bulk of burning.  It was the Florida Forest Service that brought fire protection to the counties, and then, worked to temper rural woodsburning into prescribed fire.  Among states probably only California forestry can claim comparable clout, but CalFire is almost exclusively a fire suppression operation, and it has little reach beyond its legal borders.  The Florida Division of Forestry does it all.

And that, finally, is what accounts for its unique status within the national landscape.  It suppresses fires on a scale few agencies match; probably none can equal its overall density of fire operations.  It burns more acres than any other state, and has done so ever since record keeping began in the early 1980s.  (There may be other states such as Oklahoma with as much private burning but they have no regulation over the process or hard data.)  What made the DoF unique, however, is the way in which it serves as the connective tissue among Florida’s various fire operatives.  It was unusual for foresters to rally behind prescribed fire in the early years, and it is rare for a state to lead a consortium like that which has clustered around Tallahassee.  The Division of Forestry made both transitions.  The kind of leadership role the U.S. Forest Service assumed nationally, the DoF has accepted for Florida, but without a hint of the former’s old push toward hegemony.  If it is sometimes the first among equals, the DoF remains firmly among equals.  It works with the larger Florida fire community to establish standards, it issues the authorizations that put working fire on the ground, and it promotes that achievement through regional and national fire conferences, some of which it hosts.  Within Florida neither the feds nor private landowners can command such authority.  Over and again, it has been the fulcrum of Florida fire management.

Within the Florida fire community, the DoF is widely recognized as providing entry-level hires for fire.  Somewhat to its dismay, many of its cadets then go on to work for other agencies.  So, too, the DoF served historically as the entry point for modern fire management.  Its policies and practices changed, often under duress, pushed by necessity as often as it was pulled by opportunity.  But over the decades it established itself as the institutional fulcrum of Florida fire, without which the state’s swarm of a fire community would struggle to leverage their ideas into practice.

Stephen J. Pyne
February 2011 / [PDF]
Acknowledgements: A special thanks for Jim Brenner who helped organize my entire trip and showed bottomless patience in educating an outsider into the hammock-like complexities of Florida fire.  John Saddler helped, particularly with statistics, and Dennis Hardin contributed a valuable perspective on burning on state lands.

[i] Major sources consulted include: Baynard Kendrick and Barry Walsh, A History of Florida Forests (University Press of Florida, 2007); E. Dennis Hardin, ”Institutional History of Prescribed Fire in the Florida Division of Forestry: Lessons from the Past, Directions for the Future,” unpublished essay, courtesy of author; Ramona McClennan, “History of Fire Control, State of Florida,” Florida Division of Forestry, Fire Control Bureau (February 12, 1973); C.H. Coulter, “History of the Florida Forest Service,” Florida Forest Service (September 4, 1958);Dave Nelson, “The Great Suppression: State Fire Policy in Florida, 1920-1970,” Gulf South Historical Review 21 (2006), pp. 75-94; and  R.A. Bonninghausen, “The Florida Forest Service and Controlled Burning,” Proceedings, First Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference (Tall Timbers Research Station, 1962), pp. 43-65.
[ii] On the origins of prescribed fire within the FFS, see John Bethea, quoted in Kendrick and Walsh, A History of Florida Forests), p. 433.
[iii] In January 9, 2008 smoke from a prescribed fire set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which then escaped, contributed to a superfog effect that ended with a 75-car pileup on I-4 and five deaths.  The incident is a reminder that the Florida prescribed fire act has not been tested in courts.