The surge of Florida wildfires last spring, particularly in the Everglades National Park, sounds like an oxymoron.
We typically think of the Everglades as a watery wilderness. In fact, as late as 1880, mapmakers didn’t know whether to draw it as land or water.
How then can the Everglades ever be dry enough to burn?
In the early 1900’s, after the area’s first irrigation ditches began sucking the marshes dry, wildfires were often the result. According to Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent at Time magazine, these fires were so smoky that “children in Miami had to cover their faces at school.”
The locals were stunned. At that time, most Floridians would have agreed with Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward that, if drained swamps could really burn, “the great bogs of Ireland would have been ash heaps long before St. Patrick drove out the snakes.”
But even without human intervention, the Everglades has a long history of seasonal fires, particularly during the dry months of late spring and early summer. And according to a 2015 NASA report, more than 50% of these wildfires are caused by lightning.
But the NASA report also emphasized that “fire has been used to manage wetland ecosystems for more than 50 years.” In fact, Everglades National Park was the first to use prescribed fire to maintain biological diversity.
A 1958 study of the park concluded that, in order to preserve certain ecosystems, active fire management was needed. That same year, the first prescribed fire ever in a national park was successfully conducted in the Everglades.
The purpose was to reintroduce fire in a controlled manner. This would not only minimize the fire’s damaging effects, but also strengthen the fire-adapted pine forest.
Outlining the west coast of the Everglades are miles of mangrove forests. But interwoven within the mangroves are salt marshes and coastal prairies.
When lightning strikes these coastal prairies, the resulting wildfires often burn hundreds of acres at a time.
According to the National Park Service, these areas are highly inaccessible, so the coastal prairie fires do not pose a threat to any human life or property. Which means they are permitted to burn under close monitoring.
Allowing these fires to burn under Wildland Fire Use conditions prevents the encroachment of mangroves and exotic plant species into the fresh-water prairies, and thus maintains a diverse natural ecosystem.
To truly appreciate the wonder and wildlife diversity of the Everglades, take a moment to enjoy the following video clip:
What was once described by explorers as a “godforsaken,” “hideous” and “abominable” morass, has clearly become a national treasure.