By Allison Vincent – May 6, 2022 – CREW Land & Water Trust
The walk leading up to the pine flatwoods at CREW Flint Pen Strand on the Billy G. Cobb Memorial Trail – commonly known as the Red Trail – at first glance appears unchanged after the March wildfire. That is, until you reach the fire breaks laid down by the Florida Forest Service (Forestry).
Winding through the first half mile of this popular trail, with its verdant evergreen canopy, makes you almost forget a wildfire occurred or that even more changes are imminent as the seasons change. In just a few short months these trails undergo a dramatic transformation as the CREW watershed goes from dry to wet with the onset of the rainy season. That’s why many scientists say our region has two seasons – wet and dry – plus a fire season mixed into the later end of the dry season.
Fire ecologists, like those with Forestry – or in-house at CREW with the South Florida Water Management District (the District) – anticipate the fire season considering many factors including seasonal water levels, wind measurements and relative humidity conditions.
Ecosystems across the state reap diverse benefits from the touch of fire, which is why land managers utilize prescribed fire, previously known as “controlled fire”, year round. These burn prescriptions strategically revitalize fire dependent ecosystems and help to lower the intensity of future wildfires by focusing on heavy “fuel loads”, or areas with a layered understory of plant vegetation.
As visitors, what we see after the impactful touch of fire is a stark change with ample opportunity for observation. Before the rain really gets started, take the gentle powder-sand path of the Red Trail, freckled with yellow tickseed flowers, and observe this easy-going path break up like a scar at each intersecting fire-break line.
As the fire-affected areas regrow and we work to restore the natural ecological flow, much of the burned area will remain wide open to better observe wildlife like low-flying birds, teal-striped lizards and foraging white-tailed deer.
The blazing wings of a male red cardinal stands out even more starkly as he seeks out the cooked seeds and roasted tidbits among the contrast of the blackened pine woods on one side of the fire break with the thick undergrowth of vegetation on the other.
Strange sounds, like the crackling reverberations from the pine trees, may surprise visitors not used to walking among the charred aftermath of a burn. In fact the wind blowing through the dry trees can evoke the experience of underwater fish gnawing on their favorite coral treat. However, here the sound comes from the pine tree trunks and limbs stretching from under their alligator-textured bark, growing back and expanding underneath the tightness of the char.
The openness of the understory makes it easy to spot other wildlife, such as the outlines of white-tailed deer in the distance and white zephyr lilies peaking starkly upward against a black earth. As if waiting for the water that winds down the fire season and fills the CREW trails, these rain and fire loving lilies are delicious to sniff, but take nothing but photos as you tour this eclectic sensory experience.
Under the spiky neon-green of the saw palmettos – the first plants to return as one of the only ground cover hold-outs – the equally bright colors of the six-lined racerunner streaks meticulously across the open understory. Their blue cheeks and yellow racing lines are a rare sight on these usually vegetative trails.
Ultimately, it’s not a question of if a fire will affect this region, but when, which is why we encourage you to learn about the strategies used to enhance the resilience of the land, water and surrounding inhabited areas. With its rare sights and sounds, fire reveals so much life that would normally be hidden and allows us, along with the wildlife, the ability to truly explore this newly exposed landscape.