Controlled Burns of the National Key Deer Refuge
Saturday, August 15,1992. 3:00PM Powerboat Races canceled in Key West, too much wind, unsafe conditions, weather anomaly. No Name Key. Key Deer Refuge conducts prescribed burn on the south side of Watson Blvd on 45 acres.
The tract is bordered on the south by the Pinewood Rockpit Road. The plan is to burn from the east up to the hardwood hammock. The fire burns into the hammock killing many hardwood trees and Liguus and endangered stock island tree snails.
Fire declared out, everybody goes back to Sugarloaf Lodge to party and get ready to go home.
Fire on No Name Key restarts near west side of burn. Soon there are two separate fires. One jumps 70 ft. over Watson Blvd. and starts a fire on twenty five acres on the north side of the road. Fire rages engulfing entire tract. Eight houses on the third road are evacuated, entire neighborhood in danger.
Brave men and women of Big Pine Volunteer Fire Dept get fire under control by pumping water out of canals. They are joined by Sugarloaf Volunteers (also brave), takes all night to get the fire under control. Thank you local firefighters. Kids started the fires, Huh?
August, 2003 Key Deer Refuge conducts prescribed burn on 175 Acres, the whole damn northeastern corner of Big Pine Key. Again the area contains substantial area of low West Indian hardwood hammock. Ignition is accomplished with ping pong balls as incineration devices dropped from helicopters.
Wind increases, four residents on Pine Way in Koehn Subdivision were ordered to leave there homes. Some refuse, one stands on roof wetting down house and the green vegetation around it with a garden hose. Big Pine Volunteers are on the job again. Green vegetation wet down helps, other fire deptartments also help. There are a lot of thatch palms in this area with too many dry fronds.
September 15, 2011, Key Deer Refuge conducts prescribed burn on 21 acres, also containing hardwood hammocks, under very dry conditions. Fire out of control and burns over one hundred acres jeopardizing homes and private property. Whole neighborhoods evacuated. There had been no rain for a week and conditions were very dry. Refuge’s excuse for losing control was that it was a “weather anomaly”. Citizens were outraged and the Refuge held a special meeting, but citizens shouted down the official speakers.
USFWS almost burned their new $95,000 paved parking lot at Blue Hole. They would have had to send a crew over from their $950,000 utility building at Coconut Farm on Wilder Rd to figure out what to do. They would have had to hold some meetings at their $3,500,000 headquarters in order to put out bids to get the Alaskan firm that built the headquarters to see if they could fix it. Unfortunately, Miesner Marine Construction Co. couldn’t bring their construction equipment from their staging lot on the highway that USFWS traded for 4.5 acres of oceanfront habitat valued at $4,500,000.
Concerned Residents’ Response
In April 2007 a group of nine concerned residents, working under the name of the Pine Rocklands Citizens Task Force submitted a four page document to the management staff of the National Key Deer Refuge. The group consisted of local residents with various degrees of expertise in the flora and fauna of the Lower Keys and represented a combined local knowledge of more than 200 years. They made their recommendations out of a deep concern for the future of the habitats within the protected areas in the Keys.
In 2004, hundreds of acres of pines were killed as a result of prescribed burns and in 2005, Hurricane Wilma killed additional pine acreage and substantial hammock vegetation. The number one management objective of the group was to prevent any further loss of lower keys pine rockland habitat. Eleven management recommendations were made.
1. Maintain pine rocklands through careful management.
2. Prescribed burns conducted under wetter conditions, with allowance for night burning.
3. Evaluate site specific conditions and strategies.
4. Prohibit prescribed burning in transitional wetlands, freshwater wetlands, and solution holes.
5. Prior surveys (pre-burn), protection of large seed pines and endangered species.
6. On ground hand ignition only, no ignition from helicopters.
7. Burn on a cycle of no less than 15 years. Research and mimic natural (lightning) fire frequency.
8. Burn small areas, between 1 and 15 acres at a time depending on the site.
9. Extensive biological monitoring of burns. (pre burn and results of burn)
10. Ideal fire is one that is small, low intensity, moderate speed surface fire.
11. Create mosaics of burned and unburned patches within fire units.
Of these eleven recommendations, only number 6, ground ignition was followed and adopted. If these other recommendations had been accepted the September 15, 2011 wildfire and resulting ecological destruction, and danger to the public, could have been prevented. Members of the public need to be engaged to protect our remaining habitats in the Lower Keys. Residents and others concerned with the survival of native flora and fauna need to insure that these conditions be adopted for all future activities in the Florida Keys Refuges.