Photo Credit: The Fire Networks Workshop: FAC Net, FLN and IPBN Members and Staff. Photo by FAC Learning Network

Last Tuesday, Ronda Sutphen from the Florida Forest Service prepped FAC Net, the Fire Learning Network, and the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network members for their annual field learning exchange, which she and her partners were hosting the following day in Baker County, FL. The field exchange takes place during the Network’s annual workshop, and Ronda was prepping participants at the end of a long day of facilitated sessions in the hotel. The group’s attention was waning, but that turned around quickly as Ronda described the next day’s activities. She warned of snakes, sunburn, dehydration and chiggers—enough to perk up the crowd. Then she promised alligators, helicopters, heavy equipment, longleaf pine and live fire, and suddenly Wednesday morning couldn’t come soon enough!

To say that the Florida field exchange was well planned would be a gross understatement. Ronda and her partners— including folks from the US Forest Service – Osceola National Forest, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Baker County Fire Department, The Nature Conservancy, O2LIT (Okefenokee-Osceola Local Implementation Team), GOAL (Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners), PFTC (National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center), US Fish and Wildlife Service – Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Ronda’s colleagues from the Florida Forest Service—could not have hosted a better coordinated or more interesting field trip. The exchange was infused with the Cohesive Strategy from start to finish, highlighting resilient landscapes and forest restoration, innovative and collaborative wildfire response, and locally led efforts to make Baker County more fire adapted. At each of the three field stops, participants were greeted by no less than thirty fire managers and community leaders, all eager to welcome the group, share their local insights and successes, and engage with the diverse community of practitioners who had traveled to Florida from all over the country.

The first stop in the field exchange was the Taylor Community Volunteer Fire Department, where the group learned about recent wildfire activity and discussed strategies for promoting fire resiliency in highly fragmented landscapes. Taylor is located at the confluence of many types of landownership, including state, federal, and private, and they’ve found that a collaborative approach is key to effective, appropriate fire response.

Photo Credit: FAC Learning Network

The second stop had a more ecological focus, including a visit to a recently burned stand of slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and another area that had been replanted with longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). Longleaf pine currently occupies less than 3% of its historical range, and its restoration has been increasingly identified as a priority in the region—both because of its association with rich plant communities and biodiversity, and because longleaf savannas are one of the most fire adapted and fire resilient ecosystems in the South.

Photo Credit: FAC Learning Network

The afternoon was spent on the Osceola National Forest. The group enjoyed lunch under huge live oaks on the shore of Ocean Pond, then drove a few miles down the road to visit an active burn unit. Even the seasoned fire practitioners in the group (of which there were many!) were visibly excited to see fire on the ground. A small crew from the Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC) was dragging drip torches through a stand of slash pine and longleaf pine, and field exchange participants got to talk with the crew about burn objectives and observe fire behavior in saw palmetto (as one local host said, “it burns green and it burns hot!”). Field exchange hosts also demonstrated use of a mitigation mower, displayed a helicopter with a helitorch and other impressive fire equipment, and used a bulldozer to pull one of the tour buses out of a ditch. There were also some screams and intrigue when a small scorpion fell out of a longleaf pine cone that someone had picked up. It’s hard to pinpoint which part of this stop was the most exciting! Some media joined us for part of the exchange to learn about what was going on that day. Check out the news report here!

Photo Credit: FAC Learning Network

As the title of this blog post indicates, Florida makes fire look easy. There is a palpable ease with which Florida fire managers talk about fire and implement their projects; whether it’s prescribed fire or cross-boundary collaboration on fire response, there’s clearly a cultural connection and comfort with fire in Florida, and it’s an essential building block of the fire adapted communities that they’re building there. It was that comfort with fire—that cultural connection, elevated and enabled by legal, technical and social innovations—that inspired and energized the group last Wednesday, and sent everyone home saying “I want to do it like they do it in Florida!”

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