A State Fire Capacity Wildfire Hazard Mitigation (SFC) Grant, awarded by the U.S. Forest Service in 2023, has enabled the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) to expand a decade-long prescribed burning program in Gulf State Park, AL. Established in 1939 and operated by Alabama State Parks, Gulf State Park is a 6,500 acre park on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico which contains classic southern rough and pine savannah habitat, beautiful spring-fed lakes, and many outdoor recreational opportunities. In 2011, the park experienced a devastating 1,000 acre fire which quickly spread through the park, threatening the neighboring communities that form a complex coastal Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) around the park. Since then, AFC has maintained the only state park prescribed fire program in the state to mitigate future wildfires, improve park habitat and mitigate invasive species.
“This mitigation grant has allowed us to focus on the key WUI areas and increase [the size] of future treatment areas with prescribed fire,” says Rickey Fields, the AFC forester now responsible for the treatment program. The grant has enabled AFC to access specialized resources such as wildland fire engines (type VI), UTVs and personnel to plan, prepare and execute the burns.
While AFC and the park system were already conducting prescribed burns periodically in the years following the wildfire (an estimated 1,500 acres total), they’ve been able to expand the program since the grant was received. Approximately 180 acres were treated in November to improve bald eagle habitat, as well as a final treatment on 100 acres to end the year. In August, 2024 AFC will execute a 500 acre burn that was postponed due to severe drought. Prescribed burns are executed in coordination with local agencies, Orange Beach Fire Department and Gulf Shores Fire Rescue, who often send personnel and resources. “Municipal departments like the two-fold experience,” says Fields. “They assist when asked, and we work more efficiently together when we have natural disasters such as fire or hurricanes.”
Fields says he and his predecessors have worked hard to build trust with the community. By demonstrating experience and expertise with prescribed burning, tangible habitat benefits and careful burn planning, the treatment program is fully supported locally. Planned burn windows are advertised in advance, fire weather factors considered, and smoke dispersal patterns accounted for. Prescribed burn operations typically last one day and closed areas are reopened within days or weeks, keeping the overall impact low. “A lot has been accomplished!” says Fields.
The Alabama Forestry Commission’s mitigation program is a great demonstration of how interagency cooperation can result in success despite a complex local environment. While prescribed fire isn’t always the best or only tool, at Gulf State Park it is often the right tool and allows for multiple benefits.