A burning issue: Fighting fire with fires

Photos by Tim Chapman

How park copes with red-hot crises

Leaping flames torching bushes and threatening wildlife once again in Florida’s fragile wetlands: Does that automatically signal ecological disaster? Maybe, but possibly not. It depends on some key factors, including the size and intensity of the fires, how they were started and whether they were intentional, controlled burns.

This photo slide show depicts people on the ground and in the air combating raging blazes in and around the Everglades.  The last two shots are of firefighters in Shark Valley in Everglades National Park battling fire with fire in a controlled burn, also known as a prescribed burn. Firefighter Pat Edwards, in the next to last photo, uses a drip-torch to shoot a steady stream of flaming fuel toward the ground. Controlled burns also can be ignited with a helitorch, mounted on a helicopter.

There’s no doubt that lightning strikes, careless smokers and picnickers, illegal trash burning and outright arsonists were the culprits in wildfires that have ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres throughout Florida, killed animals and firefighters, jeopardized homes and led to highway closures, costing Florida taxpayers millions of dollars a year. Florida is the lightning capital of the nation, and lightning strikes account for most of the fire damage, with May usually being the most destructive month. On average, eight fires ignite every day of the year somewhere in Florida, a number far higher than in Everglades National Park.

Some slow-moving fires burn into the ground and ignite the muck, black earth containing decaying saw grass,  So-called muck fires, which can spread underground months after the visible flames have been put out, can burn tree roots and imperil the nearby water supply. In addition, thick smoke from brush fires in the Everglades triggers health concerns in humans and animals.

To counter and contain the threats, officials set off controlled burns, which have beneficial effects in nature, especially in places like Everglades National Park. In 2009, the most recent year for such statistics, firefighters attached to the three regular Everglades fire engines and one helicopter swung into action for 19 controlled burns, or half the total number of Everglades blazes that year. Park officials call for additional resources during the more active fire periods.

In choosing the time, place, intensity and length for controlled burns, officials aim to reduce and get a better handle on the wildfires that normally break out during the dry season in Florida. The situation is more acute because man-made conditions have reduced the water levels in parts of the Everglades. Burning also controls pathogens and thins out dense, unwanted vegetation, which serves as fuel for wildfires. Everglades is the first national park to use fire to manage vegetation. It has turned to control burning since 1958, and regularly updates the procedures.

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