© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wildfire in the Big Cypress National Preserve is nearly 10,000 acres and 5% contained

 A National Park Service was parked for the night late Monday after 100 firefighters from four agencies finished their first complete week battling the blaze
Melinda Horne
/
National Park Service
A National Park Service was parked for the night late Monday after 100 firefighters from four agencies finished their first complete week battling the blaze

A wildfire in the Big Cypress National Preserve north of U.S. 41 is now 5% contained. It has been burning for more than a week and grown to nearly 10,000 acres.

As dawn broke on Tuesday in the Big Cypress National Preserve, wildfire officials reported the Sandy Fire was 5% contained, the first time in over a week the crews reported progress in stopping any section of the now almost 10,000-acre blaze.

Massive plumes of smoke from the fire will continue to make driving along U.S. 41 treacherous between Naples and Miami and fire managers are advising motorists to slow down and take extra caution. U.S. 41 is also known as Old Tamiami Trail in that area.

"Firefighters are still working along the western perimeters of the fire," Riki Hoopes, a National Park Service wildfire information officer, told WGCU on Monday night. "We are going to contain the fire within some different trails and some natural barriers to safely control the fire so it doesn't go where we don't want it it to go."

The forest is so dense in this section of the preserve that Hoopes said some firefighting equipment cannot move from the narrow walking trails, nor across water-filled, flood-control canals. But those very things, working as fire lines, are key to their plans on how to attack the wildfire Tuesday by essentially holding it in place until it burns itself out a section at a time.

"We're going to let the fire get little bit bigger to better control how it spreads," she said.

Hoopes said dry conditions and shifting winds over the last several days have also created challenging conditions for firefighters working to control fire lines along the northern perimeter of the fire.

Residents of Ochopee and surrounding communities including Everglades City and Chokoloskee should expect increasing impacts from the wildfire smoke Tuesday and into Wednesday.

More than 100 wildland firefighters from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and the state and federal forest services are entering their second week of around-the-clock work battling the blaze, which is centered about three miles north of U.S. 41 inside the huge federal preserve.

Ground-based tractor teams will continue to cut fire lines through the woods, helicopter crews are using so-called Bambi buckets to scoop water out of lakes and ponds to drop on the hottest parts of the blaze, and federal pilots in large planes are dropping tens of thousands of gallons of water along the edges of the wildfire.

The Sandy Fire was started by lightning May 1 along the Oasis Trail roughly north of U.S. 41's mile marker 48. It has grown to become the largest wildfire in Southwest Florida this year after last month's Cypress Camp Trail fire grew to nearly 7,000 acres along Interstate 75 in northern Collier County, also in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

 Wildfire is a healthy part of forested ecosystems, clearing out old, dead, underbrush allowing for new growth and better roaming of animals
Ashlee Girardi
/
National Park Service
Wildfire is a healthy part of forested ecosystems, clearing out old, dead, underbrush allowing for new growth and better roaming of animals

This week wildland firefighters were attacking the forest's fire's flanks, or edges, south of Interstate 75, also known as Alligator Alley, and north and west of U.S. 41, which turns from an east-west highway through the preserve toward a more north-south route as it approaches Naples and Fort Myers.

Last weekend fire crews set small, controlled burns around structures on the northern edge of the wildfire to protect several out-buildings. That burned up most of the woodsy fuel the larger wildfire would need to cause damage to the structures.

Hoopes said firefighters are using pre-existing pathways and canals to try and keep the wildfire in sections where it will burn itself out.

Pre-evacuation notices have been given to residents in the sparsely populated area deep inside the national preserve, but the blaze is not putting any residents at immediate risk at this time.

Ochopee has the country's smallest post office, a 61-square-foot shed that handles mail for about 900 residents including those in Everglades City some eight miles to the west.

The post office is less than an hour to the east of the Naples Grande Beach Resort.

Big Cypress National Preserve stretches over 729,000 acres in Southwest Florida and borders Everglades National Park to the south.

Wildfire is an important part of any woodsy ecosystem as the flames burn away dead vegetation, allows new growth to rise from the ashes, and clears land for larger predators to roam. Certain trees and shrubs need the heat of a wildfire to trigger the release of their seeds.

Closures remain in effect west of 11 Mile Road, north of U.S. 41, east of Monument Trail, and south of Mud Lake, Little Deer, Oasis Trail and Lost Dog Swamp including the southern end of The Florida Trail from the Oasis Visitor Center north to Interstate 75 at mile marker 63. This both ensures the safety of the public and allows firefighters to work without anyone in the way.

The "Big Cypress" preserve is not named that due to the immensity of old-growth trees in the preserve, but for the huge expanses of wet prairies and marshes within it.

WGCU, NPR and PBS for Southwest Florida, will update this story regularly.

Anatomy of a wildfire:

 The location of the wildfire deep inside the Big Cypress National Preserve north of Ochopee, FL, on Monday, May 8, 2023
WGCU
/
National Park Service
The location of the wildfire deep inside the Big Cypress National Preserve north of Ochopee, FL, on Monday, May 8, 2023

As the fire continues to move to the south, smoke impacts become more likely on U.S. 41 and travelers were urged to use caution in the area.

Phase One of the Sandy Wildfire Evacuation Plan remains in effect. Nearby residents will be notified by fire managers if the evacuation phase is upgraded.

  • Phase One: Residents within evacuation zone are notified of potential fire impacts and advised to create defensible space around home if possible.
  • Phase Two: Residents within evacuation zone should be packed and ready to evacuate.  Residents with preexisting health conditions will be encouraged to leave at this time.
  • Phase Three: Residents will be advised to leave as fire threat is imminent.

Closures remain in effect west of 11 Mile Road, north of U.S. 41, east of Monument Trail, and south of Mud Lake, Little Deer, Oasis Trail and Lost Dog to ensure the safety of the public and allow firefighters to work without impediment.
Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tom Bayles and Michael Braun