Smoke, ozone cover Miami-Dade, Broward from Big Cypress Fire

Smoke, ozone cover Miami-Dade, Broward from Big Cypress Fire

10 May 2011

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USA — Stinky smoke and ozone spread as far east as the Atlantic Ocean Tuesday from a fire 100 miles away in the Big Cypress National Preserve, shooing residents into their air conditioned cars, houses and offices.

Hairdresser Connie Azertan stepped out of her Miami Beach apartment Tuesday morning to go to work, took a sniff of the smoky air – and would have stayed home if she didn’t need the money.

“It was stinky,” she said. “And it stung my eyes.”

It was true for much of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, even though the fire was 100 miles away, scorching 35,850 acres of the Big Cypress Preserve between Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley.

The blaze, started by lightning on April 26, spread dense smoke and high ozone levels as far at the Atlantic Coast as winds shifted eastward early Tuesday morning. More wind shifts later Tuesday were expected to carry most of the murk south and west, away from Miami-Dade and Broward.

Local health officials issued air quality advisories urging young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions to say indoors.

“Outdoor activities, especially exercising or physical chores should be avoided,” said an advisory from the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management.

“Smoke from wildfires may cause coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes and a runny nose,” said an advisory from the Broward Health Department.

“If you have heart or lung problems or asthma or you’re elderly or very young or a pregnant woman, it’s a good day to stay home, said Juan Suarez, environmental epidemiologist for the Miami-Dade Health Department. “Don’t do gardening or jog or anything like that.”

He said several local schools had called for advice, and he had recommended cancelling outdoor physical education classes while the smoke is present.

Young children are at greater risk from polluted air because their lungs are smaller, taking in more air per pound of body weight than adults, said Dr. Vivian Hernandez-Trujillo, director of Allergy and Immunology at Miami Children’s Hospital.

“Minimizing the time exposed is a good thing,” she said.

Drivers should switch their air conditioners to “recycle” mode to keep new air from entering, but still should not drive for long hours, Suarez said. Dust filters from home improvement stores might make things worse, filtering only large particles and letting more dangerous particles through. Filters named “N95” left over from 2009’s H1N1 “Swine Flu” season are helpful, he said.

Collier County, state and federal agencies were working to contain the fire Tuesday with 350 firefighters, seven bucket-carrying helicopters, 18 fire engines, 10 swamp buggies, three fire crews toting shovels and two standby crews primed to chase any new spurts of flame, said Dan Bastion, spokesman for the Southwest Incident Management Team, a FEMA group coordinating the fight against the fire. Crews came from Collier County, the U.S. Forest Service, the Florida Division of Forestry, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other agencies.

By Tuesday afternoon, the blaze was moving northwest from where it started, 20 miles west of the Oasis Visitor Center, which is on Tamiami Trail about 50 miles east of Naples.

“We’re doing burnouts [backfires] on the northwest side of the fire,” said Bastion. “It’s about 10 miles south of Interstate 75, but it won’t reach there.”

No roads were closed, and no people or buildings were threatened, Bastion said. Crews expect to extinguish it by May 18, he said.

Though a smoky nuisance for the suburbs, regular doses of flame actually help maintain the health of many Florida ecosystems.

“Ecologically, fire is a benefit,’’ said Bob DeGross, chief of interpretation for the Big Cypress National Preserve, where the blaze has swept across nearly 36,000 acres. In fact, the benefits are so essential that wildfire crews aren’t trying to put out the fire, but instead simply contain it within a specific area.

In the Everglades, the diverse mosaic of sawgrass prairies, cypress sloughs, tropical hammocks, pine forests and other systems evolved over centuries of regular burns. Fires perform multiple roles, DeGross said, burning away exotic invaders and decaying brush and then recharging the soil with ashy nutrients that will feed new native growth, luring back grazing wildlife and birds.

In Big Cypress —750,000 acres of cypress swamps, pine forests and grassy wetlands bordering Everglades National Park, regular burns are so vital that managers set more acreage afire annually than in any national park — typically 50,000 to 70,000 acres a year. The northern end of the fire, about 10 miles south of Alligator Alley and 50 miles west of Broward’s suburbs, is now entering areas that were intentionally burned last year.

Historically, the Big Cypress landscape — typically higher and drier than the Everglades — burned more often than the wetter Glades, with fires sweeping large areas every three to four years. The current blaze — dubbed the “Jarhead Fire” by preserve fire management officer John Noble in honor of his nephew Justin Nobles who had just joined the Marine Corp — is an average sized one, DeGross said.

Because South Florida natural areas have been dried out by drainage canals and dikes, some fires, particularly during serious droughts like the current one, can leave serious and damaging scars. In the worst case, fire can burn deep into the peat or muck, creating intense burns almost impossible for firefighters to put out without help from rain. In the 1970s and ’80s, muck fires carved huge depressions into sections of the northern Everglades and destroyed 1,500-year-old islands of hardwood trees, some of the system’s richest habitat. Cattails invaded the wounds, pushing out native sawgrass and plants.

In the Big Cypress, the biggest risk is to the namesake cypress tree stands known as “domes.” The soggy and shady forests are often thick with rare bromeliads. But DeGross said that there is still enough ground water in those areas to protect the domes from serious damage. The blaze has scorched mainly pinelands and open prairies, which quickly recover.

Still, the fire was getting in the way of the fishing.

“This morning, it [smoke] was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife,” said Marshall Jones, owner of Mack’s Fishing Camp west of U.S. 27 in West Dade. “It made it difficult to breathe clearly.”

Jones and his family stayed inside, and two people renting in his cabin left a day early because of the smoke.

“It looks almost like the sawgrass is billowing smoke,” he said.

Oddly, at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery on Tamiami Trail much closer to the flames, a good part of Monday’s smoke was gone by Tuesday, said gallery employee Rosie Markowski.

“All I see now is clouds and blue sky,” she said.

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