Scientists Help Re-introduce Healthy Fire in Florida Forests

A duff workshop offered by the Southern Fire Exchange in 2019. Photo by David Godwin, the Southern Fire Exchange.

A duff workshop offered by the Southern Fire Exchange in 2019. Photo by David Godwin, the Southern Fire Exchange.


When fire was re-introduced to long-unburned forests, fire managers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida noticed large-scale mortality in overstory pines. They wanted to restore the fire-dependent forest ecosystems but were hesitant to apply prescribed fire until the cause of the tree mortality was identified. 

They received help from the Joint Fire Science Program. Administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, this interagency program funds wildland fire research and science to inform fire management policies and decisions at local, regional, and national levels. Results from these studies are delivered to the fire management community through the Fire Science Exchange Network, whose 15 regional members help land managers understand and act on the results.

Research funded by the Joint Fire Science Program found the amount of shed vegetation on the forest floor, known as duff, and its moisture content were a strong influence on tree mortality after a fire. Research further found that extensive consumption of the duff by fire led to the observed pine mortality.

The Southern Fire Exchange worked with fire scientists to share this information through a local workshop and field tour. Together, fire scientists and managers formulated burn guidelines based on rainfall and drought conditions, duff moisture, and preventative techniques such as proactively managing the duff around critical trees.

This research brought awareness to the complexity of fire and forest floor interactions. It refocused local prescribed fire objectives from reducing mid-story vegetative cover to gradually removing the duff layer on top of sensitive roots.

This project illustrates how fire science was able to help land managers in the south bring healthy fire back to the forest and restore a balanced ecosystem.

David R. Godwin, Ph.D., is a certified fire ecologist and the director and co-principal investigator of the Southern Fire Exchange program with the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences at the University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences. With funding provided by the Joint Fire Science Program, the Southern Fire Exchange is a collaboration among the University of Florida, North Carolina State University, Tall Timbers Research Station, and the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station.