The smoke was thick on the cape, where the crew went into the forest, clad in bright yellow, with a clear directive – burn it down to build it back. Thickets went up in quick spurts of heat and flame, and the state park took on the distinct smell of a Fourth of July barbeque.
It seemed odd, even to some of those who had been tasked to burn it, to see the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park engulfed in flames and then celebrate. But the prescribed burn was essential to maintaining the health and future of the park.
“This is the first burn since Hurricane Michael,” said Park Manager Aaron Miller in between large swigs of Gatorade. “And we’re trying to just reduce fuel – a lot of accumulation… We’d like to keep it on a schedule and just be regular about what we do.”
Controlled burns had been performed every three to five years before Hurricane Michael as part of regular park maintenance, and Miller had done several of them before.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, “Naturally occurring fires caused by lightning once played a major role in forming and maintaining much of Florida’s pine lands, sandhills, scrub areas, prairies and wetlands.”
Now, the FWC and their affiliates use carefully controlled prescribed fire to maintain ecological balance while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires.
Earlier that day, Miller had issued orders to the group of 15 or so – some were to follow along the shore, others along the road. The volunteers from South Gulf Fire Rescue would wait where the paths would diverge to supply help and water if needed. Now, he surveyed the scorched perimeter of the burn zone to decipher next steps.
South Gulf’s assistant fire chief, Patrick Foy, couldn’t help but admire the professionalism of the group, who followed directions to the tee.
“These guys really are pros. They’re not putting on a show,” he said. “They really do run a tight ship.”
Foy remembers a prescribed burn in Eastpoint in 2018 that had gotten out of hand and consumed 36 homes. Miller and his crew, Foy was certain, were determined to ensure unexpected wildfire was not a risk.
South Gulf Fire Chief Michael Barrett said it is typical for the local fire department to be called out to help make sure prescribed burns remain under control.
“That’s pretty normal for firefighters out here,” Barrett said. “There aren’t very many of us really at any given fire station, so we go help other departments with these kinds of things whenever we can.”
The park’s ecosystems have evolved over many years to weather storms like Hurricane Michael, and Miller commented on how quickly plant life had been able to rebound. However, the man-made additions to the park had not fared so well.
Pieces of boardwalk were scattered through the thicket, concealed by an overgrowth of the forest floor that had taken over the old campground.
With the underbrush cleared and debris removed from the site, the state park will be able to make necessary repairs to hurricane-ruined trails and campsites that had become unruly after three years with no use. This goal made this controlled burn especially significant, Miller said.
“We’re helping get ready for construction and redevelopment of the park and the campgrounds,” he said. “Pretty much just trying to clean things up.”
The perimeter had taken Miller and his crew longer to complete than anticipated. An especially rainy summer had left the ground soggy and the fauna well-watered, making it difficult to properly burn.
They only had about two hours left to finish the interior of the burn zone, so Miller finished his Gatorade, adjusted his personal protective equipment, loaded up his ATV and went back in.
As the late afternoon set in, fires began to fizzle out, but the ground smoked well into the night as the charred remnants cooled off and settled. After three long years, staff and volunteers can look to begin making much anticipated repairs to the park’s northern end, which they hope will soon draw visitors to Gulf County like it did several years ago.