Last week’s wildfire in the Everglades was the worst in 19 years, charring over 40,000 acres and pouring out smoke so thick it closed schools in Miami and other nearby communities. But in addition to threatening the already-stressed ecosystem of the Everglades, the fire might also hold keys to its renewal. The flames also killed nonnative plants, the ash provided nutrients for the notoriously weak swamp soil, and the smoke protected the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow from predation by hawks.
Park officials refuse to paint the fire as black or white, noting that fires are a natural part of the Everglades life cycle. Fires can be good for the park, but since the Everglades cozies up to one of the most developed areas in the country, complications for human populations can be huge.
“Like so much here, it’s not just one thing,” said [Everglades fire management officer Rick] Anderson, who starts planned fires in addition to fighting those that are unwanted. He added, “Fire is our grizzly bear or our wolf: it has to be here.” Then he pointed toward a house in the distance. “But it can’t be over there.”
Humans started the fire, either by accident or arson, and though it’s 70 percent under control now, at its peak the flames burned hundreds of acres every few hours and raced through the dry grass at speeds of 8 mph. Rangers had to evacuate homes and several hundred prisoners from a large penitentiary, but 200 firefighters working 16 hours a day kept the flames from destroying homes and property.
Environmental advocates argue that the fire could’ve been prevented: They say too much water has been diverted from the Everglades into Miami and surrounding Dade County. But Anderson still thinks the fires would’ve happened anyway. Even better, he argues his point by giving awesome quotes:
“This place is built to burn.”
“The Everglades dies without fire.”
“This thing is alive,” Mr. Anderson said of the park. “It’s always changing, and any change from outside kicks it another direction. This environment is dynamic as hell.”
Rick Anderson, a taciturn, stolid man of steely resolve who makes his instinctive actions and few words count when disaster erupts at the borders of wilderness and civilization. Can’t you just see him being played by Tommy Lee Jones, who would go on to win an Oscar for the role? Personally, I can’t wait for River of Fire to debut in 2010. I’ll take my check now, Hollywood.
— Ted Alvarez