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Apalachicola National Forest Hosts International Fire Professionals to Share Ideas on Wildfires, Healthy Forests

Debbie Casto, Forest Service fire management officer for the National Forests in Florida, discusses the precautions taken before conducting a prescribed burn near threatened and endangered species sites on the Apalachicola National Forest. The forest is home to several endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. (Forest Service photo by Susan Blake)

Debbie Casto, Forest Service fire management officer for the National Forests in Florida, discusses the precautions taken before conducting a prescribed burn near threatened and endangered species sites on the Apalachicola National Forest. The forest is home to several endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. (Forest Service photo by Susan Blake)

More than 8,000 miles from home, fire management officers from Australia and New Zealand recently visited the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida to share techniques and strategies in the use of prescribed fire.

“We see how the use of frequent fire intervals helps manage the different fuel types,” said Andrew Greystone, fire and emergency service manager from Victoria, Australia. The Apalachicola appears to be a more diverse forest – including species, flora, fauna, habitat for birds and other animals – than what we’re used to seeing.”

The study tour was part of an exchange program between Australia, New Zealand, Canada and fire professionals from the United States begun in1968. The group of six Australians and three New Zealanders also visited national forests in California, Northern Idaho and Montana.

Australian fire management officers were eager to improve their knowledge and expertise in light of the country’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfire crisis. The catastrophic fires killed 173 and burned more than 2,000 homes in Victoria. As a result, the officers were tasked to increase their yearly prescribed burns from 220,000 to 1 million acres.

Fire managers from the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center in Florida hosted the international guests. The center includes fire professionals from several agencies including the U.S. Forest Service.

The Florida visit focused on prescribed fire sites, interagency cooperation, aerial fire tools, habitat restoration and wildland-urban interface mitigation measures that are effectively implemented on the Apalachicola Bluffs Preserve, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and the Apalachicola National Forest.

“Florida is a leader in prescribed fire techniques and strategies. Our 10-year prescribed burning average is 100,000 acres every year,” said Steve Parrish, the forest’s fire management officer. “We were asked to be part of this year’s international study tour to present our strategies. The information exchange is valuable for all of us.”

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Nine out of ten wildfires are caused by people and are preventable. On average, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s bureaus, coordinated by the National Interagency Fire Center, respond to about 16,500 wildfires per year that occur on land under their jurisdiction and assist state and local agencies in responding to a significant number of the approximately 60,000 wildfires per year that occur on land under their jurisdiction. Almost 98% of wildfires are suppressed on initial attack, keeping unwanted fires small and costs down. The Forest Service spent $1.436 billion on wildfire suppression in FY 2012.

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