Big Cypress National Preserve fire growing slower; containment rises
OCHOPEE - Firefighters worked through the night Tuesday on the 10,551-acre wildfire growing in the Big Cypress National Preserve east of Naples, a tactic that appears to be working as control of the Sandy Wildfire rose from 5% to 15%.
"Burning at night allows firefighters to limit the amount of heat on the line, and decreases the risk of spot fires over the line," said Riki Hoopes, a National Park Service wildfire information officer. "Operations went late last night, and are expected to continue tonight, as crews pull fire south eliminating unburned fuel between the control lines and the main fire.
Hoopes said Wednesday firefighters will work to hold existing fire lines and create new ones as crews on the eastern and westerns edges of the big blaze work their way south toward U.S. 41. At the same time, airplanes and helicopters will drop tons of water of the hot spots while ground crews mop up hot spots as they move down the lines.
The Sandy Wildfire's amount of charred ground grew by only about 550 acres, while the level of containment tripled.
Massive plumes of smoke from the fire will continue to make driving along U.S. 41 treacherous between Naples and Miami, known as Old Tamiami Trail in that area, and fire managers are advising motorists to slow down and take extra caution.
"Firefighters are still working along the western perimeters of the fire," Riki Hoopes, a told WGCU. "We are going to contain the fire within some different trails and some natural barriers to safely control the fire so it doesn't go where we don't want it it to go."
The forest is so dense in the western edge of the preserve that Hoopes said some firefighting equipment cannot move from the narrow walking trails, nor across water-filled, flood-control canals.
But those very things, working as fire lines, are key to plans on how to attack that region of the Sandy Fire this week by essentially holding it in place until it burns itself out a section at a time.
"We're going to let the fire get little bit bigger to better control how it spreads," she said.
Closures remain in effect west of 11 Mile Road, north of U.S. 41, east of Monument Trail, and south of Mud Lake, Little Deer, Oasis Trail and Lost Dog Swamp including the southern end of The Florida Trail from the Oasis Visitor Center north to Interstate 75 at mile marker 63.
Wildfire and global warming
As disruptive as a wildfire can be, a forest fire is not only important to the ecosystem in which it burns, but is integral to slowing climate change.
Forests act as "carbon sinks," absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis and storing it in trees, vegetation, and down through roots into soil for decades. Called carbon sequestration, trees and shrubs help mitigate the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus reducing the impact of global warming.
Periodic natural wildfire is the lynchpin.
Taking a look at the bark on trees in an established forest in Florida you might see that at least one side of the tree's trunk will be blackened from a long-ago wildfire. More importantly, however, the tree itself was not killed by previous fire because flames flicked through the forest at regular intervals.
To imagine what overzealous wildland firefighting can result in, look no further than to scenes of devastation after super-hot wildfires in the western states, where the only things left upright were stone or brick fireplaces.
Tropical rainforests are by far the most important ecosystems for mitigating climate change, and sub-tropical ones like those found in the Everglades are a close second.
Tropical rainforests collectively sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than temperate forests, but they’re also increasingly destroyed for agricultural or residential expansion.
In carbon footprint vernacular, about 4,200 trees is a rough number of how many there are per acre. That many trees can sequester carbon — or keep it below ground and out of the atmosphere -- more than 20 tons for over 30 years.
Wildfires and forest health
Forest fires burn away dead vegetation, allow for new growth to rise from the ashes that provides food for smaller creatures, and clear the woods so larger predators can more easily roam and hunt. Certain trees and shrubs need the heat of a wildfire to trigger the release of their seeds.
As more people build homes in woodsy subdivisions that require wildfire for their long-term environmental health, forestry managers must strike a delicate balance between protecting lives and property in the immediate term, while also preserving the long-term benefits of allowing wildfires to rejuvenate the forest.
This dual responsibility highlights the complex nature of wildland firefighters at work in Big Cypress as they navigate the fine line between taming the menace of wildfires and respecting the natural processes that sustain forests, and help slow global warming.
Forests also provide habitat for a wide range of plant and animal species, supporting biodiversity by creating complex ecosystems and promoting ecological balance.
The Sandy Wildfire
Hoopes said dry conditions and shifting winds over the last several days have also created challenging conditions for firefighters working to control fire lines along the northern perimeter of the fire.
Residents of Ochopee and surrounding communities including Everglades City and Chokoloskee should expect increasing impacts from the wildfire smoke Wednesday into Thursday
More than 100 wildland firefighters from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and the state and federal forest services are entering their second week of around-the-clock work battling the blaze, which is centered about three miles north of U.S. 41 inside the huge federal preserve.
Ground-based tractor teams will continue to cut fire lines through the woods, helicopter crews are using so-called Bambi buckets to scoop water out of lakes and ponds to drop on the hottest parts of the blaze, and federal pilots in large planes are dropping tens of thousands of gallons of water along the edges of the wildfire.
How wildfires begin
In Florida, more than eight of ten wildfires are caused by people. Some are on lit purpose, but most are due to a lack of maintenance on equipment, such as an out-of-tune lawn mower or a vehicle's catalytic converter that can be very hot as it runs though underbrush. Chains, like those to secure a boat or trailer, left unhooked will drag on the road behind a vehicle and send sparks flying.
This week wildland firefighters were attacking the Sandy Fire's flanks, or edges, south of Interstate 75, also known as Alligator Alley, and north and west of U.S. 41, which turns from an east-west highway through the preserve toward a more north-south route as it approaches Naples and Fort Myers.
Last weekend fire crews set small, controlled burns around structures on the northern edge of the wildfire to protect several out-buildings. That burned up most of the woodsy fuel the larger wildfire would need to cause damage to the structures.
Pre-evacuation notices have been given to residents in the sparsely populated area deep inside the national preserve, but the blaze is not putting any residents at immediate risk at this time.
Ochopee has the country's smallest post office, a 61-square-foot shed that handles mail for about 900 residents including those in Everglades City some eight miles to the west.
The post office is less than an hour to the east of the Naples Grande Beach Resort.
Big Cypress National Preserve stretches over 729,000 acres in Southwest Florida and borders Everglades National Park to the south.
The "Big Cypress" preserve is not named that due to the immensity of old-growth trees in the preserve, but for the huge expanses of wet prairies and marshes within it.
WGCU, NPR and PBS for Southwest Florida, will update this story regularly.
Anatomy of a wildfire:
- Wildfire in Big Cypress prompts section of trails, roads closed
- Fire crews providing structure protection on Big Cypress blaze
- Evacuation plans in place as wildfire in Big Cypress NP spreads
- Sandy Fire in Big Cypress near Ochopee grows to 5,500 acres
- Uncontrolled Sandy Fire grows to 8,400 acres despite weeklong containment efforts
As the fire continues to move to the south, smoke impacts become more likely on U.S. 41 and travelers were urged to use caution in the area.
Phase One of the Sandy Wildfire Evacuation Plan remains in effect. Nearby residents will be notified by fire managers if the evacuation phase is upgraded.
- Phase One: Residents within evacuation zone are notified of potential fire impacts and advised to create defensible space around home if possible.
- Phase Two: Residents within evacuation zone should be packed and ready to evacuate. Residents with preexisting health conditions will be encouraged to leave at this time.
- Phase Three: Residents will be advised to leave as fire threat is imminent.
Closures remain in effect west of 11 Mile Road, north of U.S. 41, east of Monument Trail, and south of Mud Lake, Little Deer, Oasis Trail and Lost Dog to ensure the safety of the public and allow firefighters to work without impediment.
Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.
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