The first intentional burn on Big Pine Key since the Blue Hole Fire scorched 100 acres last September could be lit Thursday.
Staff with the National Key Deer Refuge plan to ignite the controlled burn on a narrow, boomerang-shaped tract covering 10 acres along the west side of Key Deer Boulevard.
The site lies close to the Blue Hole area where a planned 10-acre burn on Sept. 15 turned into a wildfire that covered a much larger area and forced a five-hour evacuation for residents of the Pine Heights subdivision.
"We won't make the final decision to burn until Thursday morning, depending on weather and conditions," refuge manager Anne Morkill said.
Refuge fire-management specialist Dana Cohen said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff has been applying "lessons learned" from the Blue Hole Fire at prescribed burns in mainland refuges in recent months.
"We've been testing the protocols learned here last year and things have gone perfectly," Cohen said. "We look forward to a good burn here."
One of the most visible changes Thursday will be more firefighters at the site.
"There will be a lot of people there," Morkill said of units from Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, the Florida Division of Forestry, Monroe County Fire Rescue and the Sheriff's Office. A firefighting helicopter from Everglades National Park will be stationed on the island.
"I definitely feel better about this burn," Monroe County Fire Chief James Callahan said. "Fish and Wildlife has prepared more and we have prepared more. There will be more people assigned at the burn to make sure there is no threat to life or property."
Even as it grew to 10 times the planned size, the Blue Hole Fire was contained within national refuge property. No homes were damaged, and wildlife losses apparently were limited to about a dozen box turtles.
"Definitely there was no sign of Key deer deaths," Cohen said.
Many Big Pine Key residents were wary of prescribed burns even before the Blue Hole Fire. Refuge staff maintains that occasional fires are needed to preserve the rare pine rockland habitat unique to the Keys and a few small parcels in Miami-Dade County.
"Pine rocklands are the most diverse plant communities in Florida," says a refuge report. "However, their diversity diminishes as forests become overgrown.
"Plants in this forest type need open areas and rare plants endemic to the pine rocklands such as deltoid spurge, sand flax and Big Pine partridge pea flourish following a fire."
Burns also clear out underbrush that could fuel unplanned fires caused by carelessness or lighting strikes.
The area targeted Thursday was last burned in 2009. Robert Ehrig, an ecologist and 34-year Big Pine resident, doesn't agree that a site burned three years ago needs to be ignited again.
"There is no real science saying you should burn anything after three years," Ehrig said. "There really is no need to burn this, and it could do some real damage to a unique ecosystem. It seems their resources would be better spent somewhere else."
Morkill said the Thursday fire should be lit sometime after 9 a.m., and likely would last until mid-to-late afternoon. Key Deer Boulevard will remain open to traffic unless smoke significantly lowers visibility.
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