Firefighters battle a rogue Everglades wildfire

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — Dry conditions south of Lake Okeechobee set the stage for wildfire in Everglades National Park last week. The blaze burned 771 acres on park land and 515 acres on state land.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Michael Gue/EVN
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — Last week, firefighters battled a 1,400-acre wildfire in Everglades National Park. The fire was spotted the afternoon of Sunday, April 19, about 5 miles south of U.S. 41 in the northeastern corner of the park, and was fought by Everglades Fire Management along with Florida Forest Service and Miami Dade Fire Rescue.

According to the Everglades National Park report, the fire started on April 19.

The blaze dubbed the “Sunday Afternoon Fire” by Florida Forest Service started just south and east of the Everglades National Park boundary. Because there were no recorded lightning strikes in the area, human action may have been involved in starting the fire.

Firefighters battled the blaze by land and by air. Air tankers were used to drop water on the hottest spots of the fire. Planes were also used to monitor the progress of the fire.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/NPS/Josh Pargas
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — A single-engine air tanker drops water on a wildfire in Everglades National Park. Gray smoke billows in the background.

The South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped control the fire by modifying water management operations. SFWMD closed the G-211 water structure in the L31N canal to temporarily raise regional ground water levels by about a foot along the eastern edge of the fire. They also installed temporary pumps to move water from the canal over a levee and into the park. Raising the water level helps keep the marsh wet enough to prevent the peat soil from burning and to help prevent the fire from spreading.

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — To help prevent peat from igniting, the South Florida Water Management District began pumping water out of the canal into adjacent marshes on April 22. The district also closed a gate along the canal to raise groundwater levels.

Invasive melaleuca trees help feed the fire
The fire burned sawgrass prairie, brush and invasive Australian pine and melaleuca.

The invasive melaleuca trees intensify the fire danger, according the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) publication “Fire and Melaleuca.” While naturally occurring fires in the Everglades have historically been ground fires that burn through low-growing grasses and bushes, the presence of the fire-adaptive melaleuca trees increase the danger of intense crown fires.

Melaleuca is a fire adapted species, the IFAS publication explains. Its thick, spongy bark protects its cambium layer from fire while the papery outer layers serve as a ladder to shuttle flames into the canopy. The oily leaves fuel intense fires that jump from tree to tree. Making matters worse, not only can adult melaleuca trees can survive fires that kill native vegetation, fire also triggers the “paper bark” trees to release seeds that fall on the ash, which is ideal for melaleuca seed germination and seedling growth.

In addition to Everglades Fire and Aviation, personnel from Big Cypress National Preserve, Alaska Fire Service, Florida Forest Service, South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and aviation resources from the Silver King Fire assisted in bringing the blaze under control. By April 24, the fire was under control. Firefighters continue to monitor the area.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The park service warns that with the current drought and high winds, fire danger remains high.

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