Firefighters quickly quelled a small wildfire on Big Pine Key Tuesday afternoon believed started by inattentive homeless campers.
The roughly quarter-acre blaze, in a wooded area near Coconuts Liquors Lounge on U.S. 1, was spotted by Monroe County Sheriff's Office Trauma Star helicopter pilots at 3:23 p.m., said Dana Cohen, fire management specialist at the National Key Deer Refuge.
It was contained by 4:30 p.m. and no significant property damage or injuries were reported.
"It was really small, but we're lucky it occurred near such a populated area," Cohen said. "It was noticed very quickly and the response was very quick."
Fire crews were helped by recent rains as well, she added.
"Investigators believe it started the previous night by homeless campers burning leaf litter," Cohen said. "By the afternoon, the temperature raised, the humidity dropped and winds picked up. That led to some palms and pine hardwood catching fire. That's what led to the visible smoke column that the Trauma Star pilots spotted."
The fire could have been much worse had it not been spotted so quickly, she said.
There is no criminal investigation and fire officials don't believe arson was the cause, but they will be patrolling the area more at night with Sheriff's Office deputies to curb homeless camping, which has long been popular in the area.
Camping and campfires are not permitted on National Key Deer Refuge lands.
Monroe County Fire Rescue and Big Pine Key Volunteer Fire Department crews battled the blaze alongside Florida Division of Forestry and National Key Deer Refuge personnel.
Crews were expected to continue to patrol the scene into today, Cohen said.
Federal and state authorities do not start controlled burns this time of year. Such controlled burns occur only between June and October when winter winds die down.
Fires in general on Big Pine Key have become a flashpoint for some residents since a 21-acre controlled burn of pine rocklands got out of control on Sept. 15, 2011, burning 100 acres and forcing many residents to evacuate.
Though no homes were damaged, the incident resulted in some residents demanding that officials rethink their prescribed burn philosophy for Big Pine Key.
The controlled burns are necessary for wildlife habitat and to reduce fire danger to homes, according to federal wildlife officials. They help clear habitat for species dependant on open spaces and reduce fuel loads around residential areas.
Residents can report illegal fires on public lands by calling U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement at 305-304-9627.