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NEW: Flames right behind houses, but no panic for Royal Palm residents

Joann Hiebert stood as close to the fire as she dared, the sound of crackling palmettos and the heat of the blaze holding her a few feet from the fenceline of her Royal Palm Beach home.

But she knows she’s OK. The flames burning through the grasses and shrubs about 10 feet from her backyard in the Saratoga Pines neighborhood are from the annual “prescribed burns” in the Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area.

And they give her peace of mind after she witnessed a brush fire in the preserve in 2011.

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The prescribed burns are done to prevent infernos in the dry season’s wooded areas that could threaten homes and lives. They are set intentionally to help forest management, the ecosystem and decrease the likelihood of a serious fire.

It’s no wonder that when Harper Carroll and his team from Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management come to set fires the neighbors wave, say hello and offer encouragement.

Carroll’s team decided the evening of Jan. 31 that the weather was perfect for a much-needed burn on the park’s east side. “It lets us burn it in our own way,” he said. 

But timing is critical. Earlier in the week it was too windy. By Feb. 1, a calmer east wind blew, perfect to push the fire and smoke away from the Saratoga Pines homes that line the east side of the Royal Palm Beach Pines’ sprawling acreage.

The prescribed burns eat up the underbrush that thrives in natural areas, eliminating the fuel that could be ignited by lightning strike or careless human.

“We burn right up to these houses,” Carroll noted, pointing to a handful of nearby one-story homes. The residents have been friendly, he said. They understand the importance of the work.

“People will come out and thank us, offer us steak dinners,” he said, laughing. “It’s true. Some people come out and say hello. They tell us, ‘That tree is where my favorite woodpecker lives. Please don’t hurt the woodpecker.’”

Carroll’s team oversees 32,000 acres of natural areas across 33 sites in Palm Beach County. “All of them are fire dependent,” he said. “But it’s hard to bring fire in where there are people so close.”

The Feb. 1 fire was the first time Heibert watched a prescribed burn in action. But she has seen what she called “an unscheduled burn” — a brush fire that threatened her home just a few years ago.

“That was scary,” she said. The prescribed burns make her feel safe.

“If there is an unfortunate situation like a fire, it’s doesn’t get near the homes,” Hiebert said.

The Feb. 1 burn was a perfect example of what his team can do when the conditions are right, Carroll said. “On the news you see these rip-roaring wildfires tearing through things. We don’t like those,” he said. “We like happy little fires,” he added, pointing to a smouldering patch of brush about five feet away.

Carroll has about two dozen people on his team, plus helping hands from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue and a supervisor from the Florida Forest Service. A Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy sat in a massive black pickup at the preserve’s entrance. All told, about 30 workers set, monitor and control the fire. 

While the Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area spans 800 acres, the recent fire burned only a 100-acre patch. Carroll and his team plan to burn the park’s west side later this year.

They remained at the preserve throughout the day until the last ember dimmed, with the occasional help of the Fire Rescue water truck. Burn sites are monitored for at least a day after the blaze to make sure there are no flare-ups.

New, bright green shoots soon will be seen throughout the burned area, bursting forth from the charred ground — exactly the result Carroll hopes for.

“It’s incredible, when you see the new plantlife,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

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