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Prescription burns not only help prevent wild fires, they're necessary to maintain our ecosystem.

If you’re in eastern Manatee County and you see large plumes of smoke rolling into the sky, it likely isn’t a wildfire.

Odds are, that’s a prescribed burn, and it’s a good thing. Great thing, really.

The reasons for a prescribed burn are too many to cover in one column, but here’s a start: Prescribed burns or fires purposely induced by humans have been burning since the days of our early discoverers and Indians.

“I hear all the time,” said Florida Division of Forestry mitigation specialist Patrick Mahoney, “that, ‘You’re damaging our ecosystem.’ Well, would you rather have one day of smoke and ash from a prescribed burn or a wildfire that threatens to burn homes and there’s smoke and embers for four days? You’re choice.”

Prescribed burns kill the potential fuels that will lead to a raging wildfire, leaving the area rich in nutrients that tend to attract animals such as deer and hogs; burn the base of vines, which otherwise would rise up a tree and form layers of canopy that blocks nutrients to the trees and eventually suffocate them to death. The lush green in the forest usually grows back in about two weeks.

Florida leads the nation in the number of such controlled burns, averaging 200,000-500,000 a year.

“We believe in it,” Mahoney said.

The process of a prescribed burn is much more complex than randomly throwing a match on the ground. (This actually is one technique used by cowboys who toss matches from horses in order to avoid possible rattlesnakes, fire ants, ticks, yellow jackets, etc.) A prescribed burning plan is usually nine to 10 pages long and includes a prescription sheet that, before the burn is performed, takes into consideration numerous factors, including surface and transport winds, maximum temperature and humidity, rate of spread, staring time, burn technique, flame length and minimum relative humidity.

The Division of Forestry this week performed a one-acre burn outside its premises. The burn took three hours.

Animals are less harmed during a burn than one might suspect. During a burn, underground tunnels dug by animals such as rabbits become a shelter for predators and victims alike — raccoons, opossums, rabbits, mice and snakes.

By the way, Mahoney said one of the biggest causes of homes becoming victim of a fire stems from roofs and gutters that have not been cleared of leaves, needles and other fuels for fire. Once one ember sails into this fuel, the house burns down.

Burns are prescribed by ranchers, pasture owners, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, regulators of state and county parks and so on.

States across the nation look to Florida for examples of how to reduce the amount of wildfires, according to Mahoney. If you’ve watched the news at all the last decade, you no doubt see the terror fires have played on California.

“I want to send a thank you card to (California governor) Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and their legislature,” Mahoney said, “saying ‘You do more for us in Florida when everyone sees all that burning and they call me asking, ‘How can I protect my home?’”

Nick Walter, outdoors writer, can be reached at 745-7013.