Playing With Fire

That roaring inferno you see was started intentionally, and if it can be kept under control, it'll do more good than harm

Playing With Fire
That roaring inferno you see was started intentionally, and if it can be kept under control, it'll do more good than harm

By Mike Clary
The wind is variable, blowing from the southeast at about six to eight miles per hour, when the state Department of Forestry guys in yellow Nomex suits begin to walk through the Nixon Smiley Preserve with drip torches, dropping lines of fire in the grass and saw palmetto. Wearing hardhats, goggles, and bandannas over their mouths, and tromping through the prickly underbrush the way they do with no-nonsense intent, these Day-Glo fire-starters seem cinematically surreal here in this suburban jungle setting. They hold the torches -- silver canisters heavy with a gasoline-kerosene mix -- down at their sides, and then as they walk along diagonals through the thick scrub, the vegetation at their feet bursts into flames. It's instant conflagration. Just the merest touch of the burning wick end sends the dry underbrush crackling to life, and in seconds orange flames are whooshing downwind. Sabal palms glisten in the sunlight from moisture that boils to the surface, wax myrtle bushes hiss and explode, and busted pine tree snags flare into Roman candles. Moving against the breeze, the pyrotechnicians disappear into the blackening landscape. Smoke is boiling into the blue sky.

From the warehouses next to the preserve, forklift operators, silk-screeners, and file clerks are being flushed out of their work stations. Weeks ago they were warned this would happen in a "Dear Neighbor" letter from Dade County. "These pinelands require periodic fire in order to perpetuate the many rare and endangered plant and animal species they contain and to reduce the level of flammable vegetation...," says the letter announcing what is called a controlled burn. "The burn takes about 5-6 hours to complete."

Still, that letter was mailed months ago, and it is starting to look like Armageddon here in West Kendall. So the people working along this industrial block of SW 124th Street can be excused for stepping into the parking lots or sticking their heads out of windows to wonder if maybe a plane from nearby Tamiami Airport has gone down, or if some gang of noontime vandals has tossed a cigarette into the tinder after the twelve-pack of Bud Ice was history. A short, Spanish-speaking man queued up at an aluminum-sided lunch wagon next to the dry-wall manufacturing company gestures toward the field next door and loudly tells his mates, "This is the kind of hell where Fidel Castro is going to end up!"

Joy Klein, a botanist who wrote the warning letter, is dressed in her own yellow firefighting outfit, twirling a sling psychrometer to measure air temperature and relative humidity and logging the numbers into her notebook, when the wind begins to clock around from the south and gusts up. She pulls a small anemometer from her red canvas kit and takes another reading. "Gusts almost to twenty," she says. "That's right at prescription."

Prescription means the atmospheric conditions, fuel load, and other variables that must be within fixed limits to make a controlled burn permissible, and with the changing wind and the proximity of buildings to this 120-acre site, Klein is getting worried. A ten-year employee of Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management, Klein is in charge of the county's forest management and restoration program. She's a forest ecologist by training, but colleagues teasingly call her a fire bug. "I have a high tolerance level for smoke," she says. "They say I have this look in my eye when I see a pineland burn."

Fire is Klein's favorite management tool. But this sudden wind shift threatens to wrench the tool right out of her hands. Escape attempts come naturally to fires, and now some flames are pushing through the fence along SW 124th Street. Klein gets on the radio to Skip Russell, the forestry department ranger and the day's burn boss, who is out stringing fire. "Skip, we're getting some strong south winds here, near prescription," she says.

Already the fire is spotting along the roadway, reaching into clumps of grass and looking like it's going to blister the paint on a new department of forestry truck that inexplicably has been left downwind of the fire with the doors locked. "The hell with it," says one of the yellow suits, making a halfhearted effort to sprinkle a little water in a perimeter around the vehicle.

Klein grabs a flapper -- a broomstick with a rectangle of rubber on the end -- and starts whapping the flames while a crew of six parks department workers, in attendance on a training exercise, begins moving debris away from the fence line. Old tires, a mattress, plastic bags full of trash, a sofa bed are hauled out close to the roadway. Ranger Gary Lee Lewis, who has the words "woods," "arson," and "burn" pasted on the back of his hardhat, pulls the forestry department's tanker truck near the flames, and from up top hoses water along the fence line.

Within a few minutes, the minicrisis along the roadway is over, while inside the preserve the fire is raging, racing northwest ahead of the afternoon sea breeze. Orange flames are eating up the greenery. Only the dark-barked pines stand above the holocaust, most of them already stripped of needles and looking dead.

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