So this is how nature reacts when it’s pushed too far.
When real estate scammers carved up 55,000 acres of cypress forest and swamp in the 1960s, they left behind more than just useless contracts and crushed dreams. They gave Collier County the outsized matchbook that is Southern Golden Gate Estates.
Its latest immolation began Monday afternoon and quickly spread to 3,000 acres in the central part of the failed subdivision, now part of Picayune Strand State Forest. The wildfire chafed at containment Tuesday, spreading smoke and ash as far away as downtown Naples, more than 15 miles away.
Investigators don’t know what caused this particular blaze, but they do know what fueled its rampant growth: bulldozers, dynamite and dredges.
Four decades ago, workers gashed 40 miles of canals through the swamp, immediately draining 30,000 acres of wetlands and dropping the water table between 2 and 4 feet.
The result: dry land ready for concrete to be poured.
Although few houses sprang up in the remote “South Blocks,” as it came to be called, invasive species, such as the papery melaleuca, did. The historic landscape of cypress trees and grasses, which rarely burned, disappeared.
Amid flames, cabbage palms “go off like a match” but ultimately survive the blaze, said Dave Addison, co-director of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s science department. As the South Blocks’ canals siphoned away water from above and below the surrounding land, cabbage palms spread like the wildfires they exacerbated, Addison said.
Gerry LaCavera, a state Division of Forestry wildfire mitigation specialist, said the cabbage palm’s fronds were making it difficult to fight the fire. The highly flammable fronds are snapping off the trees and blowing away, igniting nearby areas.
The dearth of moisture in the soil also makes the South Blocks fire-friendly, said Mike Duever, a senior environmental scientist with the South Florida Water Management District. The air immediately above the surface would be more humid if the water table hadn’t fallen so dramatically.
Spring is wildfire season in Florida, and Southern Golden Gate Estates rarely is spared.
In March 1999, 5,000 acres straddling Alligator Alley got scorched in a fire that sparked to life near 68th Avenue Southeast and Miller Boulevard. A 15,500-acre blaze, one of the largest in Collier history, charred the state forest the next year.
In one way, the near-development of Southern Golden Gate Estates helps suppress wildfires. Its 260 miles of go-nowhere roads act like fire breaks, LaCavera said. Firefighters plowed some of those roads Tuesday, expanding them up to three times their original width, in an effort to stop the blaze in its tracks.
In about three years, the annual conflagration of the state forest may end.
Much of the forest will be flooded, at least occasionally, after state contractors erect pump stations and finish removing roads and canals. The $350 million restoration project is part of the $11 billion Everglades restoration campaign.
So far, state workers have plugged seven miles of the easternmost canal and stripped out all but five or six miles of the roads between the Merritt and Prairie canals, said Chip Eitel, project manager for the South Florida Water Management District. All of the homes and other structures now are gone.
The state essentially has taken over the project, which was supposed to be a 50-50 split with the federal government. Congress is debating a long-awaited bill that would provide the federal government’s share of the money.
“This kind of thing hopefully will be a lot less when we get the site back the way it should be,” Eitel said of the forest fires.