Milton-based researcher warns wildfires are getting larger and more frequent

*Editor's note: This story has been corrected to properly identify the parties responsible for the Five Mile Swamp Fire in Santa Rosa County in 2020.

Wildfires are growing in size and frequency in the southeastern United States, according to a study headed by a Milton-based forest management researcher.

Victoria Donovan, an assistant professor at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center, said that while "human ignitions" continue to be the source of most wildfires, in the Southern Coastal Plain, which includes much of Florida, lightning ignitions "played an important role too."

Particularly in the Southeast, Donovan said, the data showed increasing trends in wildfire numbers, the size of the events, total (acreage) burned, shifts in seasonality, and overall increases in the annual probability of large wildfires.

To obtain the results it did, the research team headed by Donovan used data from the federal Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity Database from the years 1984 to 2020 to quantify the characteristics of large wildfires, those burning more than 490 acres. This included identifying which regions during that period had the largest fires, most land burned and seasonality factors.

The team found that the number of wild fires caused by some factor related to human activity had remained relatively stable over the 36-year period in which the study was conducted, while lightning strikes were playing an outsized role.

"It is not necessarily human ignitions driving the trend of increasing wildfire patterns," Donovan said. Lightning ignitions contributed more to the total area burned in the ecoregion "despite being a less frequent cause of large wildfire ignition.”

“It’s a serious issue that people aren’t paying enough attention to: We have a rising incidence of wildfires across several regions of the U.S., not only in the West,” Donovan said. “We’re allocating the majority of resources to fire suppression in the western part of the country, but we have evidence that other areas are going to need resources, too.”

Three major factors influence wildfire regimes, which is the term fire scientists use to refer to an overall pattern in which fires naturally occur in a given ecosystem.

“The first is the ignition pattern, or what starts the fires,” Donovan said. “The second is changes in vegetation or fuel patterns, and then you have climate characteristics. We don’t address the drivers of the trends in this study, but it’s hard to talk about changing conditions without considering that climate may be a factor.”

Northwest Florida has seen its share of wild fire activity in recent years, most tragically in 2020 when a blaze that became known as the Five Mile Swamp Fire ravaged Santa Rosa County for five days. The fire burnt 2,300 acres around Garcon Point Road, destroying 14 homes and causing $1.9 million in damage. At one point, more than 1,100 residents who lived south of Interstate 10 had to be evacuated when the blaze jumped the interstate.

The fire started as a prescribed burn conducted on behalf of Westervelt, the owner of the land, by a group called Munroe Forest and Wildlife Management. Drought conditions contributed to its getting out of control.

At the same time the Five Mile Swamp Fire was burning, a fire that had started near Hurst Landing and become known as the Hurst Hammock Fire was consuming 1,191-acres in western Escambia County. The fire, at its peak, threatened 29 homes, though ultimately no evacuations were ordered.

The Hurst Hammock Fire, also human-caused, burned for more than two weeks before much needed rain helped to contain it.

Two years later, in 2022, some of the same Garcon Point-area homes had to be evacuated again when another fire, this one known as the Oyster Bay fire, burned up 196 acres in the same Dickerson City area of Santa Rosa County. The fire was caused by a Northwest Florida Water Management District prescribed burn that escaped established boundaries.

In August of this year about 90 acres along Hurst Hammock Road were consumed by wildfire. The blaze had started as a 2-acre brush fire, authorities said, but quickly expanded.

Related: 'I can't even imagine what they were thinking:' Santa Rosa wants answers to wildfire

Wildfires like those in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties tend to pose more of a threat to homes and buildings because the eastern U.S. "has the most expansive wildland-urban interface in the country," Donovan said in analyzing the findings of her study, "and thus is at high risk from wildfire."

"The thought behind this research was that if there are signals that wildfires are increasing, we need to understand what those changes look like."

The study concluded that the research done by Donovan and her team should help spur an increase in prescribed fire management.

In Northwest Florida, teams on Eglin Air Force Base, with the Northwest Florida Water Management District and with the U.S. Forestry Service all utilize prescribed burns to lessen the risk of wildfire on the land they oversee.

Prescribed burns, when successfully employed, help eliminate underbrush and keep woodland areas open to allow grasses and other small plants to dominate the landscape. By reducing fuel loads and keeping the understory clear, experts say, land managers reduce the chances of a larger, more dangerous wildfires.

"Public lands in the region do a really great job of maintaining a frequent prescribed fire return interval," Donovan said in an email. "Florida in general is a leader in prescribed fire in the country."

She added, however, that more can be done, particularly on private lands. A group called the Northwest Florida Prescribed Burn Association is educating private landowners on how to safely utilize prescribed burns.

"I think it’s important that people in this area recognize that frequent fire is both a natural and essential part of ecosystems in Northwest Florida," she said. "Fires will happen here, so our choice is whether we want to apply those fires in a controlled manner using prescribed fire or wait for wildfires to occur."

Residents evacuate their homes as a wildfire burns in the woods behind the houses on Weatherstone Circle in Pensacola on Monday, May 7, 2018. A recent study led by a Milton researcher indicates wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent.
Residents evacuate their homes as a wildfire burns in the woods behind the houses on Weatherstone Circle in Pensacola on Monday, May 7, 2018. A recent study led by a Milton researcher indicates wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Milton Florida-based wildfire researcher says burns getting bigger