Rookery Bay fights fire with fire

A popular 1970s television commercial said, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” But for staff at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, it’s okay to give nature a helping hand by mimicking its work.

Ten members of the reserve’s fire team –assisted by a dozen partnering organizations – conduct prescribed fires, or controlled burns, primarily from late fall through early spring when conditions are just right.

They have burned thousands of acres over the past 25 years, focusing on areas of the reserve that are closest to residential communities such as Artesia, Treviso Bay and Isles of Collier Preserve.

Setting controlled fires is important to reduce the “fuel load,” or amount of dead plant material that would quickly escalate into a wildfire that might be caused by something like a lightning strike.

Fires also help with the control and eradication of invasive and exotic plant species, including Brazilian pepper, melaleuca, Old World climbing fern and Cogon grass. In addition, fires generate nutrients that are returned to the soil and help trees, plants and wildflowers grow healthier.

Within days, herbaceous grasses sprout up and then flowers, attracting gopher tortoises, deer, turkeys, bears, insects such as bees, rabbits, and rodents such as field mice, which birds of prey find easier to spot in the newly-burned ground.

Rookery Bay uses drone technology to see the effects of a burn in real-time and shortly thereafter.

Greg Curry, a long-time Resource Management Specialist at Rookery Bay and “Burn Boss,” recommends a regular schedule of habitats to be burned each year. He uses science to track when an area was last burned, how much “fuel” currently exists, the optimal weather conditions for that location, and the safety goals.

Rookery Bay might wait anywhere from three to eight years before setting a fire in the same location. Scrub forests, pine flatwood forests and tropical hardwood hammock forests all burn and regenerate differently. The team even sets fires on islands within its 110,000 acres.

By focusing on prescribed fires that are safe and effective, Rookery Bay reduces the likelihood of wildfires and helps Mother Nature stay resilient. Rookery Bay thanks its partners in the prescribed fire program: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Marco Island and Naples fire districts, Collier-Seminole State Park, Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuges, Big Cypress National Park, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Picayune Strand State Forest, Naples Botanical Garden, Conservation Collier, and Koreshan State Park.

March Events at Rookery Bay

  • Lunch Lectures
  • Watercolor Classes
  • Photography Classes
  • Birding Workshops
  • Aquariums
  • Touch Tank
  • Exhibits
  • Art Gallery
  • Walking Trails
  • Gift Shop

The 14th Annual Bash for the Bay on March 9 at The Players Club & Spa at Lely features live music, cocktails, dinner, auctions and dancing.
Proceeds benefit education, research and conservation.

Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center
300 Tower Road, Naples, Florida Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 239-530-5972

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