Last Friday was a perfect day to set the woods on fire.
Once a year, sections of St. Petersburg’s 245-acre Boyd Hill Nature Preserve are burned to eliminate dead vegetation and help encourage new growth in a carefully controlled blaze called a prescribed fire.
On February 16, a small army of workers from the city’s maintenance department were on hand to conduct the fire with seven water tanks, nine vehicles and a brush truck from the fire department.
“We have all hands on deck,” said Preserve Manager Barbara Stalbird as she zipped around in a park vehicle at mid-day distributing sandwiches and cookies to the hot and sweaty employees.
Prescribed burns are designed to minimize the risk of out-of-control fires caused by lightning and must be conducted under certain conditions to control drifting smoke, and to keep flames low to the ground and slow enough to give wildlife a chance to escape.
“The winds have to be out of the west so that [the smoke] goes over Lake Maggiore and not over the interstate,” Stalbird said, explaining that conditions Friday were “perfect.”
“Once a year we try to burn around 40 acres at a time,” she said. “Today it’s around 35.”
The burns promote new growth of pines and nutritious plants for wildlife to eat, control vines and hardwoods in the pineland and scrub habitat, and nourish the soil with the resulting ash. They also help maintain a healthy habitat for gopher tortoises, which are listed as threatened in Florida and are protected under state law.
Stalbird said sometimes wildlife like snakes, mice, rabbits and tortoises can be seen running from the flames.
“It ends up improving their habitat,” she said, “so it actually benefits them.”