33100 U.S. 41 E, Ochopee, FL
Fighting fire with fire, several helicopters dropped chemical-filled ping-pong balls that burst into flames while others dropped buckets of water on a 40,000-acre fire burning in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Hundreds of firefighters used about any means possible in a two-week battle against nature within the 729,000-acre preserve. On April 26, the preserve was struck by lightning, leading to a fire deep in the woods between the Alligator Alley portion of Interstate 75 and U.S. 41 East.
The fire remained about 95 percent contained Thursday, despite an evening storm rolling in and sparking two more, smaller fires in the Big Cypress. One, near Copeland, grew to about 75 acres, and the other, near Birdon Road, grew to about 30 acres, responding federal fire officials reported.
Firefighters from across the country were buzzing above the blaze in as many as seven helicopters at a time, requiring the need for their own air traffic controllers. Meanwhile, others attacked the fire from the ground on dozens of swamp buggies, all-terrain vehicles and utility trail vehicles, which are basically souped-up roll-caged golf carts accessorized with water hoses, National Park Service spokesman Mike Johnson said.
“A little bit of water can go a long way if you know how to use it,” Johnson said.
Quite a tab was accrued as of early Thursday evening, nearing $4.8 million and counting, Johnson said. Nearly 300 federal firefighters and support staff continued working as of Thursday, down from about 350 on Monday. Those numbers are expected to drop to 222 today, Johnson said.
The federally employed and contracted workers stayed in hotels in Everglades City or Naples, up to an hour away from the fire, as accommodations are limited near the preserve. Tent camping wasn’t an option, Johnson said.
“All the creepy crawly things that bite, sting and strangle... You don’t want an alligator to attack a firefighter in the middle of the night,” he said.
Firefighters hit the fire hard when it was first reported, Johnson said. Long hours, up to 16 hours per day, with just eight hours to commute back and forth and sleep, were required initially, he said.
“They were running and gunning at full tilt the first few days.”
Those long hours were under strenuous conditions including exertion, extreme heat, smoke, scratching through brush, battling bugs and baking in the sun. Conditions soon put them at risk and they needed to back off a bit, Johnson said.
The vegetation and brush is so thick and dense, it’s almost impossible to get firefighters right up to the edge of the fire.
“They were in brush up to their heads and when the wind changed, those firefighters could get trapped in there,” Johnson said. “Yes, the acreage increased, but the last thing we want is for someone not to come home at night.”
Similar to a prescribed burn, the firefighters burned the fuel they could under as many conditions as they could control.
Many of the firefighters, part of the “Hot Shots,” highly-trained federal fire-fighting crews, have worked together on fires, including at the Big Cypress fire in 2009 that burned about 30,000 acres of the park and took several weeks to extinguish. That fire also started in late April with a lightning strike.
Recent prescribed burns kept the recently sparked fire from being worse, Johnson said.
There were about 100 properties threatened in the northeast area of the preserve. At least one property was destroyed and others were damaged.
“They include hunting cabins, some very elaborate and some just little cabin shacks,” he said.
The worst of the fire is over, officials said. The height of the smoky conditions, which were noticeable as far away as Miami earlier this week, came during the intentional burnouts.
“If the fire was doing it’s own thing, it’d be smoky for a lot longer,” Johnson said.
Fire is part of a natural cycle in Southwest Florida and has some benefits, including helping to wipe out some exotic species, including Brazilian pepper trees, which have seeds that are not suited for thriving after wildfires.
Officials estimate the fire will be fully extinguished by May 18. It will take time, Johnson said, to black out the full perimeter.
“We have a good solid edge of the fire that is black and secure. We’ve mopped up, which means it’s all dead and the fire is out, most of it,” he said. “Smoke should be less. We’re not applying any more fire to the ground.”
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