Everglades brush fire burns 20,000 acres; smoke may return to suburbs and coast

June 10, 2014 

People just waking up didn’t know what to make of the strange haze hanging in the sky. Was it fog? Was a nearby building on fire? Was it a Miami Heat hangover?

For hours on Monday morning, the surreal scene covered much of South Florida, cutting visibility in some places to a mile or two, obliterating parts of the skyline, closing a major road, forcing a health advisory, and sending first-day summer campers indoors.

The smoke came from a huge Everglades brush fire in West Broward, which burned nearly 20,000 acres, according to the Florida Forest Service.

While the fire continued to spread, the smoke that wafted to the suburbs and coast thinned by the afternoon.

Now, the big question: Will it be back Tuesday?

Could be, depending on the direction of the winds and whether the smoke stays low to the ground.

“If rain comes, that would be a big help,” Florida Forest Service spokesman Scott Peterich said.

And the rain could come. Forecasters expect a wet week with a rain chance of 30 to 40 percent and likely thunderstorms.

The West Broward fire was started Saturday night from a lightning strike. By Monday morning, the smoke blanketed downtown Miami, Doral, Hialeah, Homestead, Davie, Cooper City — almost everywhere people live.

Drivers found ash on their cars in suburbs close to the fire zone. Those with respiratory issues were told to stay indoors. Commuters were instructed to use caution.

“It’s been many years that I have seen smoke this thick in the urban areas due to wildfires,” Peterich said.

The fire also closed northbound U.S. 27 at Interstate 75. The road reopened about 9 Monday morning after being shut down for nearly 24 hours.

Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Mark Wysocky said “visibility had improved,” but the department was “monitoring the situation.”

“If we need to shut down again, we will,” he said.

By Monday, when a plane surveyed the area, the fire had spread to about 19,500 acres. Peterich said sawgrass burns quickly and that firefighters are letting the blaze run its course. Two Forest Service trucks are monitoring the flames and will intervene if the fire approaches levies and canals, which can threaten other parts of the Glades.

Peterich said that a combination of variable winds and low dispersion — which means the smoke stays low to the ground — caused all the haziness. By late afternoon, it appeared the smoke was rising.

The haze and odor put an early damper on the first day of summer camp for children across South Florida on Monday.

Camp managers were advised to keep children indoors. At Westwind Lakes Park, summer campers spent their morning out of the smoke, said Terry Vilorio, the Miami park recreational summer camp leader.

“Most of the kids still wanted to go outside but we played games indoors instead,” she said.

Chuck Caracozza, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami-Dade, said thick smoke could return overnight if the winds die down.

“We might see much of the same,” he said of the necessity to issue a dense smoke advisory Monday morning.

A sea breeze from the southeast helped push smoke out of South Florida by Monday afternoon.

The National Weather Service expects Tuesday to be mostly cloudy with a chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, everyone is still being told to stay inside as much as possible until the smoke dissipates. The Broward Health Department on Monday put out a warning to take "precautions during this period of increased air pollution levels due to wildfires."

"Smoke from wildfires may cause coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes and a runny nose," the department warned.

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