TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Improved safety and cleaner air are on the way. That’s what the state promised, Tuesday, announcing new rules on prescribed burns, which are intentionally set fires used to maintain vegetation and prevent wildfires.
While speaking to the press in Tallahassee, Florida’s Ag Commissioner Nikki Fired called the changes to the state's program "major enhancements" for the rules which she said had largely been unaltered for around 30 years.
The policies start immediately. The biggest change is Florida will now use the Air Quality Index to determine if the air is clean enough for a prescribed burn.
“Our feeling," said Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels, " there is no reason for prescribed fire to add or make that unhealthy air condition worse.”
Other rules largely target Florida sugarcane operations which have caught flack for preharvest burns sending smoke and ash into nearby communities.
Cane growers now need a two-field buffer zone from wildlands on dry, windy days. They can’t burn on foggy mornings. Nighttime burns are banned without permission. Growers also have less time to contain underground muck fires, 72 hours down from 96.
“This is something that they knew that day one— this is a promise that I made to the people of the state of Florida," said Commissioner Fried. "We were going to be bold, we were going to come in and look at changes.”
Growers, for the most part, weren't outwardly critical of the new rules. Florida Crystals Vice President of Corporate Relations Gaston Cantens said in a statement the company had worked closely with the Florida Forest Service for more than 25 years while utilizing their prescribed burning program.
"We continually implement science and technology to advance our farming practices," Cantens said. "We look forward to continuing to work with the State agency as they implement their new changes.”
One group did take issue with the rule change. Environmentalists with the Sierra Club felt they didn’t go far enough. The group has been working to completely ban preharvest burns over pollution concerns.
“While we are pleased that Commissioner Fried stated that these changes are a first and not the last step, the announced modifications to the sugar field burning regulations will not stop the smoke and ash the residents in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area have been forced to endure," the group said in a statement. "However, the announcements are a sign that the Stop the Burn activists who have been leading the fight since 2015 are on the right track."