May 20, 2020

NPS
The 'Moon Fish' wildlife near mainland Monroe County's Loop Road has consumed wildlands the size of Disney World and its surrounding conservation lands.

NPS The 'Moon Fish' wildlife near mainland Monroe County's Loop Road has consumed wildlands the size of Disney World and its surrounding conservation lands.

MONROE COUNTY — The winds shifted south days after the “Moon Fish” wildfire broke out, wafting smoke over the Florida Keys, perhaps the only hint locally of the enormous blaze that has threatened the northernmost portion of mainland Monroe County.

That same fire that ignited on May 7 has burned nearly 26,000 acres south of U.S. 41, about a mile away from the Miccosukee Reservation Area and Loop Road.

The fire, which experts expect to burn through the month of May despite recent rains and an early tropical system, still poses a risk to not only federal park assets but also to the smattering of camps and homes of mainland Monroe residents who live along the mostly unpaved road that reaches deep into Big Cypress National Preserve.

There are two primary residences and eight secondary homes that are at risk from the Moon Fish wildfire, according to James Sullivan, fire management officer for Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.

The fire was ignited by a blazing truck that pulled off the highway onto the grass and spread within three days through 25,834 acres of pine and cypress forests and sawgrass prairies, an area comparable to Disney World and its surrounding conservation area. The truck driver has since been cited.

“The grass ignited underneath and started the fire on the boundary line trail,” Sullivan said. “It started in a really dry spot. This fire is very large, so we’ll be monitoring it and hitting any hot spots in the vegetation. We expect it to be burning for another two weeks, maybe even three weeks. It’s pretty significant and if we didn’t get the rain, it would have been a lot larger.

“There was one cabin that the fire impacted and at least one out-building already.”

This year has been extremely dry and water levels within the Big Cypress National Preserve have been extremely low, with little to no rain over the last few months.

On Saturday, May 9, winds shifted south which sent hazy smoke over the Keys, and just over a week later, the fire was about 60% contained after heavy rainfall last Friday.

Firefighters continue efforts to clear vegetation around as many structures and tree hammocks as possible to suppress the fire.

“Values threatened are local communities, natural and cultural resources, threatened and endangered species habitat, private and National Park Service’s infrastructure,” said Laurie Humphrey, Big Cypress National Preserve fire public information officer.

Loop Road was reopened to traffic Sunday evening.

“Basically people need to know that homes are more protected if they are fire wise,” Sullivan said. “That means providing defensible space or clearing vegetation at least 30 feet from the home, using fire resistant construction materials and more.”

Personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes, Collier County Law Enforcement, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Florida Highway Patrol have been assisting Big Cypress and Everglades fire aviation and ground crews.

“Due to the elevated fire threat across the state, I urge all residents to be aware, exercise caution and avoid outdoor burning,” said Erin Albury, state forester and director of the Florida Forest Service. “We are in the peak of our year-round fire activity, and current weather conditions will only add to the existing fire danger.”

As of last week, there were 80 active wildfires burning nearly 16,000 acres in Florida in addition to the Moon Fish wildfire.

tjava@keysnews.com