TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – New statewide safety rules about prescribed burns include more restrictions on burning fields of sugarcane, a common practice during the growing season.
And Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, while noting sugar growers were advised through conversations with her office about the changes, said additional burn rules are in the works, including a shorter burning season and increased fines for noncompliance.
"This was a promise that I made to the people of the state of Florida that we were going to be bold. We were going to come in, we were going to look at changes," Fried said during a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol. "We have definitely made sure that we have checked in with the industry, as we do with any other types of changes in regulatory oversight for any industry and commodity. They know that this was coming, and so they'll adapt."
Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar, the largest producer of sugarcane in the state, gave its support to the changes Tuesday.
"With today's enhancements, Commissioner Fried has formalized into the statewide open burn program a number of ‘best practices' that many of Florida's farmers and ranchers have been utilizing for years in sustainably managing their lands," U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club would like to see the rules go further.
"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," Patrick Ferguson, organizing representative for the Sierra Club's Stop Pre-harvest Sugar Field Burning Campaign, 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. When FDACS (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) announces a plan to phase out sugar field burning once and for all, and the switch to modern, sustainable green harvesting, we will celebrate."
Fried's rule changes prohibit burning at night and before 11 a.m. on foggy mornings, set an 80-acre buffer between wildlands and sugarcane fields on dry, windy days and give landowners 72 hours, down from the current 96 hours, to suppress muck fires.
At a meeting with sugar farmers on Monday, representatives of the Florida Forest Service addressed the changes, which also require a review of an air-quality index and weather models before authorization is given to begin burns anywhere in Florida.
"We don't want to add additional components to air and stagnation when it's already unhealthy," Forest Service Director Jim Karels, said Tuesday.
Prescribed, or controlled, burns are intentionally set and are used as a form of land management.
Sugarcane farmers typically burn the grassy fields between October and April to remove outer leaves of stalks before harvesting.
Fried declined to accept sugar-industry contributions as she campaigned for agriculture commissioner in 2018 but also didn't criticize major growers. She said the industry shouldn't be surprised with the changes, which are the first in nearly 30 years to prescribed burn procedures.
"I've been in office for nine months. This was a priority of mine from the campaign," Fried said. "These have definitely been in the works and conversations for some time. I am very confident that this has been vetted internally."
In the 2018 campaign, Fried, a marijuana lobbyist, was preferred by environmentalists over Republican Matt Caldwell, who was backed by the industry. Environmentalists have long criticized the industry and blamed it for such things as problems in the Everglades.
With the rule changes, the state announced plans to introduce in several months new software, known as "fiResponse," to provide the public with user-friendly online fire maps that also improve information for wildfire emergency responders.
"We want to build the best program we can build and still keep up a very, very good prescribed fire program statewide," Karels said.
The changes are being enacted as a wildfire season continues in which Karels said "conditions are escalating."
"We are having more fires, especially in the Hurricane Michael area," Karels said, referring to parts of the Panhandle hit by the hurricane last year. "They are 50-, 60-, 75-acre fires. They're not really big yet, but fires that take a lot of resources because of those bad conditions."