PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sandy Fire over 11,000 acres; some residents urged to leave

A forestry firefighter keeps an eye on a segment of the Sandy Wildfire, in the Big Cypress National Preserve Wednesday night.
Reggie Tokarski
Special to WGCU
Sandy Wildfire, Big Cypress National Preserve

OCHOPEE – The Sandy Fire in the southeastern portion of the Big Cypress National Preserve has grown to more than 11,000 acres and fire officials have activated a second phase of evacuation plans for those living within the affected area.

The wildfire began May 1 as a 50-acre blaze in an area of the preserve between I-75 to then north and U.S. 41 to the south.

The second phase of a three-step evacuation plan was activated Wednesday night. This phase encourages residents with preexisting medical conditions to leave and others urged to be packed and ready to evacuate. 

Riki Hoopes, a National Park Service wildfire information officer, said fire managers will continue to monitor fire behavior and set in place the final stage of the evacuation plan if fire continues to move towards homes. The final phase of evacuation could occur when the fire threat is imminent and all residents will be advised to leave.

Hoopes said fire crews continued to hold and improve control lines during the day, and conduct suppression burn-out operations along the control lines at night.

Burn-out operations allow firefighters to determine when and how fire affects the control lines and conducting such operations at night and into early morning hours helps reduce the risk of spot fires across the line due to the higher relative humidity.

Hoopes said on Wednesday that firefighters were working 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 on the hot spots while ground crews mop up as they move down the lines.

As of late Wednesday the Sandy Wildfire's amount of charred ground has grown to 11,031 acres with 20% of the wildfire contained.

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.

Closures remain in effect west of 11 Mile Road, north of US41, east of Monument Trail, and south of Mud Lake, Little Deer, Oasis Trail and Lost Dog including the Florida Trail from Oasis Visitor Center to I75(MM63). This both ensures the safety of the public and allows firefighters to work without impediment.

Anatomy of a wildfire:

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.


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.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

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. 

Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.