Everglades fire shows benefit of controlled burns

EVERGLADES — A lighting strike on the night of June 23 may have sparked the wildfire that tore through the Everglades and briefly shut down a part of Interstate 75, otherwise know as Alligator Alley.

Smoke from the fire led to poor visibility and forced the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) to close down the section between mile marker 23 (U.S. 27 in Broward County) and mile marker 80 (S.R. 29 in Collier County) around 5 p.m. on June 25, two days after the fire originally began.

Motorists didn’t have to wait long, however, as some light rain in the area improved conditions and allowed FHP to reopen the section just 30 minutes later. The fire burned over 42,000 acres and has negatively affected air quality for residents who live south of Lake Okeechobee.

Fire has played a central role in the health of the Everglades ecosystem.

According to th National Park Service, fire is critical to the survival of the pineland and prairie ecosystems of the Everglades.

Sawgrass fires actually improve the passage of water through the slough or shallow river basin, by burning back grass that would otherwise impede the vital flow of water through the Everglades. Fire not only improves habitat for wildlife by creating a mosaic pattern of vegetation, but also helps reduce large accumulation of fuels near hammocks or tree islands, which harbor a wide variety of subtropical plants less tolerant of fire. Still, controlled burns conducted by the Florida Forest Service are much preferable to an unpredictable lightning strike starting a wildfire.

The Forest Service can take into account things like wind direction to minimize the negative effects the smoke can have on the air quality for residents in South Florida.

These types of controlled burns are similar to what sugar farmers use to clear their fields before harvest. Sugar farmers also go through the same approval process by the Florida Forest Service.

“The Everglades wildfire is also a reminder of one critical reason why pre-harvest controlled burns conducted by farmers are a better, safer option than simply leaving large amounts of leaf material on the ground to dry out, as some critics would advocate,” read a statement from Sustainable Agricultural Fire Education, shared by SAFE Executive Director Pat Dobbins. “A lightning strike could just as easily set such crop debris on fire, creating a similar wildfire scenario much closer to our neighborhoods than what residents are currently experiencing. Our thoughts and prayers are with all local residents who are facing negative impacts from the wildfire, and with the fire fighters, state agencies and others who are working admirably to contain and put out the ongoing wildfire. This week’s wildfire is yet another reminder of the value of Florida’s nationally recognized controlled burning programs.”

The last fire in the Everglades occurred in 2011 and burned over 30,000 acres, meaning the current fire has already surpassed the previous blaze.

If you encounter a wildfire while driving the Florida Forest Service recommends the following tips:
• Slow down!
• Use windshield wipers in heavy fog.
• Turn on your low-beam headlights.
• If the fog or smoke becomes so thick that you cannot see well enough to keep driving, pull all the way off the pavement and stop. Turn on your emergency flashers.
• The space between your vehicle and the roadway should be sufficient so that you can safely exit the vehicle without obstructing traffic.
• Report the hazard to the nearest Florida Highway Patrol office so that steps can be taken to warn other motorists.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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