A Large Fire Is Raging Through the Everglades

Officials are concerned about reduced visibility on motorways and respiratory issues for people in residential areas

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Florida Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services

A lightning strike sparked a large fire in the Florida Everglades on Sunday night and, as of Tuesday morning, the blaze had burned through 18,500 acres, reports CBS Miami. The Florida Fire Service says that only 23 percent of the blaze has been contained, and cautions that drifting smoke and ash may cause breathing problems in nearby areas.

The Everglades is a diverse wetland ecosystem that stretches for two million acres across central and south Florida. And the fire that is burning there is “totally different from a regular wildfire,” Scott Peterich, a local wildfire mitigation specialist with Florida Forest Service (FFS), tells Alex Lubben of Vice News. “[I]t’s all sawgrass.”

A jagged plant that is actually a member of the sedge—not grass—family, sawgrass covers large swaths of the Everglades and, as Peterich notes, it is “designed to burn.” During the majority of the year, wet soils protect sawgrass roots, allowing them to survive any flames that might tear through the above-ground plants, the Florida Museum explains. In fact, fires can be beneficial for sawgrass, “limiting the invasion of woody vegetation that would eventually change the marsh into the next successional habitat,” according to the museum website. (Prescribed burns in the Everglades is a normal conservation practice, according to the National Park Service.)

As of yet, no humans or structures have been harmed by the fire. But the blaze is quite large, and attempts to put it out have been hampered by its remote location, reports Linda Trischitta of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The weather is posing another problem. Westerly winds threaten to blow smoke onto the U.S. Route 27 Highway, impairing motorists’ vision. Alligator Alley, a section of the I-75 that stretches from Naples to Fort Lauderdale, might also be affected by smoke. Jim Karels, state forester and director of the FFS, tells Trischitta that drivers should “slow down, turn on their headlights and watch for emergency vehicles.”

The fire could also cause respiratory issues for people in residential areas; yesterday, David J. Neal of the Miami Herald reported that drifting winds could bring ash and smoke to the western Palm Beach and Broward counties. The FFS issued a recommendation that those with breathing complications “take appropriate measures”—like staying indoors with the windows shut and the air conditioning on.

The fire is quite large, but not record-breaking. Vice's Lubben notes a fire in the Everglades in 2008 burned through about 40,000 acres of land at the time. As for when the latest blaze is expected to be contained—that too is dependent on weather. The fire, according Trischitta, will likely continue to burn until the area receives some rain.

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