Wildfire crews in South Florida normally begin to relax around mid-June. Not this year. They remain on high alert across a region left tinder-dry by a deep drought and a sputtering start to the rainy season.
A string of blazes sparked by weekend lightning strikes spread Wednesday across nearly 5,000 acres in the Big Cypress National Preserve, sending smoke wafting into some sections of Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the early morning hours. Mingling with more smoke in the upper atmosphere blown some 400 miles south from a Georgia fire, it threw a hazy blanket over much of the day.
The smoke was not intense enough to trigger health warnings but it was a visceral reminder that a wildfire season that has already run longer than most doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon.
The Glades and surrounding systems remain severely parched, said Rick Anderson, fire management officer for Everglades National Park, fresh off an aerial survey of a fire that consumed 68,000 acres of West Miami-Dade County near the Miccosukee Indian Village on Tamiami Trail until weekend thunderstorms finally helped control it. The fire sprinted a stunning eight miles in a single afternoon, Anderson said, in a state-managed water conservation area that usually looks like a reservoir from the air. It was bone dry. So are the Glades’ deep watery sloughs that can serve as natural firebreaks.
“Usually, you can see a little glistening or a puddle out there,” he said. “Nothing, nothing at all.”
With the state fighting some 310 active fires, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency early this week. The fire threat, measured by soil moisture and other conditions, is actually worse in other areas -- notably Central Florida, where the Florida Division of Forestry is leading efforts to control a handful of large fires.
“We’re getting as many fires in the last 30-to-45 day period as we will in a typical wildfire year,” said Gerry LaCaverra, a spokesman for the Forestry Division.
Since January, the division has recorded 3,283 fires that have burned 188,148 acres of state lands and 210 fires that have burned 56,535 acres of federal lands. LaCaverra said the staff had been too busy fighting fires to research where that stands in terms of records.
In South Florida, the latest wildfires were sparked on Monday by the same force that helped firefighters tame the Tamiami blaze and are needed en masse to end the wildfire season: thunderstorms.
Bob DeGross, spokesman for the Big Cypress National Preserve, said lightning had ignited four separate fires. The largest, called the Monkey Farm fire after a defunct facility in the northern end of the preserve, had already consumed 2,800 acres. Another fire, called the Oil Pad Fire because it is near an abandoned drilling site, threatened several back country camp sites.
Crews were burning backfires and using off-road vehicle trails as fire breaks but containing them will be difficult after a drought that water managers say ranks among the worst in 80 years. Even the deepest parts of the Everglades, such as Shark River Slough, are dry, he said.
When those major channels go dry, there are no natural barriers to spreading prairie fires, said Anderson of Everglades National Park. Because of the volatile conditions, the park brought in a tanker plane to quickly douse small fires, a strategy that has so far succeeded. But risks, ironically, will rise as rainy season kicks in -- at least until thunderstorms start dropping enough rain to replenish water levels or douse lightning-sparked fires.
Though the last few weeks of sporadic storms have slightly raised moisture levels in South Florida, it’s still unclear when the seasonal heavy stuff will start coming down. The South Florida Water Management District said it’s the slowest rainy season start since 1989.
Geoff Shaunessey, the district’s chief meteorologist, said persistent high pressure and winds out of the dry north instead of the moist south have delayed the wet season but there are some signs of a shift to regular summer patterns.