Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried eyes sugar cane field burns

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is setting up an advanced training program for people who oversee prescribed burns, with an emphasis on burns in sugar cane fields, in an effort to reduce smoke in surrounding communities.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also Tuesday announced new boundary lines in the Everglades Agricultural Area to further separate growing inland communities around Lake Okeechobee from the potential impacts of burning cane fields.

In a news release, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the new steps will “enhance public safety, reduce smoke and ash impacts for Everglades communities and reduce the risk of wildfires.”

In October, Fried prohibited sugar cane burning at night and before 11 a.m. on foggy mornings, set an 80-acre buffer between wildlands and sugar cane fields for burning on dry, windy days and gave landowners 72 hours, down from 96 hours, to suppress muck fires.

At the time, Fried said a shorter burning season and increased fines for noncompliance were being considered.

One of the steps taken Tuesday sets up a $175 per-student training course — online or in a classroom — for certified prescribed burn managers from public and private agencies and organizations. It is intended to help reduce smoke impacts.

“Certified burners in Florida, because of their additional training, are allowed to burn when others cannot, to burn longer through the day, and are given liability protection as long as they follow the requirements in the law,” the department’s website said.

The first course is slated to be held at the end of September in Brooksville. Additional courses will be offered in Chipley, Tallahassee, Bryceville, Fort Myers, West Palm Beach and Apopka.

State Forester Erin Albury said the certification program will “ensure all prescribed fire applicators are held to the same standard across the state.”

Prescribed, or controlled, burns are intentionally set and are used as a form of land management. In addition to areas such as sugar cane fields, prescribed burning is commonly used in the state’s timber industry.

The redrawn boundaries in the Everglades Agricultural Area, which will take effect Jan. 1, are expected to reduce potential smoke impacts in growing communities.

The department’s news release noted that the lines, which include two additional burn-authorization zones, take into account an area southwest of Lake Okeechobee that since 1992 has grown in population from 33,364 to 55,833.

Environmentalists have long criticized the sugar industry and blamed it for such things as problems in the Everglades.

Sugar cane farmers typically burn the grassy fields between October and April to remove outer leaves of stalks before harvesting. The October moves by Fried were the first major changes to sugar cane burning procedures in nearly 30 years.

Ardis Hammock, a Florida Sugarcane Farmers spokeswoman and operator of Moore Haven-based Frierson Farms, defended prescribed burning practices in a separate news release Tuesday.

“Years of air quality monitoring and data show this program helps keep the Glades farming communities safe, so we can continue to live, work and raise our families here,” Hammock said.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Fried eyes sugar cane field burns

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