Florida Wildland Fire Grows to 36,000 Acres

MIAMI --

Nearly two weeks after a brush fire began at Big Cypress National Preserve, firefighters continue to work to put out the flames.

The fire has scorched 36,350 acres, or about 56 square miles, a representative of Big Cypress National Preserve said Wednesday. It was burning in an area just north of U.S. 41, or Tamiami Trail, and south of Interstate 75 in the nature preserve, near the Oasis Visitor Center.

As of Wednesday morning, the fire was 70 percent contained.

Fire officials said that countermeasures of setting back fires are working.

"As the wildfire is approaching our lines, we will actually set our own fires and have those fires burn into that fire, burning up all the available fuel," said Mel Johnson, a ranger at Big Cypress National Preserve.

Two helicopters have dropped 800 gallons of water on the flames, and firefighters have used swamp buggies to cross the difficult terrain and spray more water.

Although residents as far away as Broward and Miami-Dade counties have been dealing with smoky conditions over the last two days, the smoke seen so clearly from Tamiami Trail has finally been diverted by the wind.

"With the changing winds, folks in Miami should no longer be seeing the smoke. It'll be drifting more toward the Gulf Coast. Maybe folks in Everglades City, Marco Island and Naples could see some effects of this fire," Johnson said.

Park rangers said that wildfires are a part of the preserve's ecosystem and that if this fire was not so big, they probably would let it burn. This fire has threatened Indian villages, hunting camps and part of the infrastructure of the power grids, so firefighters had to step in.

Investigators believe a lightning strike sparked the brush fire about 13 days ago.

The fire was in a remote area of the preserve, and fighting it posed challenges.

"The other day, we had an instance where the bucket came down to pick up water and an alligator took a bite out of it," said Jim Payne, of Jarhead Fire.

The hole in the bucket was so large that the firefighters had to get a new one. Firefighters also are using 13 swamp buggies to get in and out of tough-to-reach areas.

"With the wide tires, they roll into an area," said Mike Johnson, of the National Park Service. "They can flatten vegetation, pushing that vegetation closer to the ground."

While there has been no loss of human life or property, the fire has taken its toll on some precious wildlife.

"We had four panther kittens that were lost in the fire," said park ranger Emma Andrews. "They were just a little too young to be moved from the den."

More than 360 forestry firefighters battled the blaze. One crew came all the way from New Mexico.

With one of the worst droughts South Florida has seen in the last 50 years, the vegetation provides ample fuel for it to burn.

"The saw grass, when it goes to seed, they get dried out, and this stuff will ignite very easily," Andrews said.

Firefighters said Tuesday they do not want rain, that the dry conditions are good because they want the back fires to continue to burn so that when the fire reaches the fire line, it might run out of fuel and die out.

Broward County issued an air quality advisory Monday morning, advising residents to take precautions as unhealthy air quality conditions spread across the area.

Miami-Dade County issued a precautionary advisory for possible elevated levels of air pollutants Tuesday.

Even though the brush fire is miles away, near Collier County, residents throughout South Florida smelled the smoke Monday and Tuesday.

The Broward County Health Department advised those with breathing problems, infants, children, pregnant women and the elderly to limit outdoor activities. Those who take medication for breathing problems should continue doing so. If breathing problems occur, or worsen, contact your doctor.

The Health Department and the county's Pollution Prevention, Remediation and Air Quality Division issued the following guidelines for residents to follow while the smoke level remains high:

  • Limit outdoor activities and remain in an air-conditioned environment.
  • Leave the area until the smoke has cleared if you do not have air conditioning or if smoke is likely to get inside your house.
  • Avoid activities that put extra demands on your lungs and heart. These include exercising or physical chores, both outdoors and indoors.
  • Take all medication according to the doctor's instructions.
  • Dust masks, bandannas or other cloths (even if wet) will not protect you from smoke.
  • Contact your medical provider if you are concerned about your health or if your health gets worse.

Miami-Dade County officials offered similar advice to residents there, cautioning the elderly, children and pregnant women to stay indoors, and urging people to avoid outdoor activities, especially exercise or physical chores. Officials said people with chronic respiratory ailments, such as asthma, are at a higher risk of being affected.

The symptoms that residents could experience include respiratory discomfort, irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.

Doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital said they have seen a slight increase in patients with respiratory problems, including asthma attacks, since Sunday.

"If you start feeling that, it's time to rest. Try not to inhale as much, and basically go into an area that has filtered air," said Dr. Joe Scott.

S. Fla. Air Quality Monitored

Air quality monitors at a station in Davie collect samples to measure the smoke in the soot in the air to find the particulate matter reading, or PM.

A Broward County air quality specialist said the PM hit 85 on Tuesday; on a normal day, the reading is between 8 and 10. During most brush fires, the PM hits about 24, but during a fireworks show, it is around 117, officials said.

Tuesday's overall air quality index in Miami-Dade and Broward was in a moderate range, as it was Monday, despite the highest measure Tuesday of smoke, soot and haze from the wildfire so far.

Copyright 2011 by Post-Newsweek Stations. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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