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

Occasional popping noises and louder bangs punctuate the crackle of the afternoon as pine-tree sap explodes to the surface, or trashed bottles overheat to smithereens. This land for years had been a popular playground for paint-ball warriors who built forts and hacked trails through the gopher tortoise habitat as they stalked each other with gobs of blood-red pigment. But the county got fed up with the camouflaged intruders, and about eighteen months ago put a fence around the entire area and began to haul out truckloads of trash. "They were maliciously damaging the property," says Klein, "putting up signs, cutting trees, digging moats."

In April the area was named for the late Nixon Smiley, a Miami Herald columnist and noted gardener, and although the paint-ballers continue to break in, unarmed taxpayers who want to tour the property must join a parks department naturalist for a guided tour. "Limited access," explains Klein, referring to the property, which is now smoking like an active and very hot war zone.

Eventually this burn ends prematurely when the unpredictable winds and the intense heat (even without the fire the air temperature is 92 degrees) persuade the fire boss to call a halt with only 35 of the 60 targeted acres scorched. Still, Klein counts the day a success. The parks department crew got some training, the DOF truck was not incinerated, and no one was injured, although a couple of people were dizzy from the heat.

"This is just what we wanted," says 36-year-old Klein, who pulls her blond hair into a tight pigtail braid when she dons her fire fatigues. "We had a light fuel load in there, but it was a flashy fire with all those grasses. This was a dumping ground, so there was a lot of solid waste, too. But it was hot enough to kill the invasives and burn off flammable fuels to prevent dangerous wildfires."

Two days later Klein revisits the fire scene, now a blackened field dominated by the scorched shanks of pine trees, most of them long dead. But here in the ash, amid the mounds of roofing trash, scrap metal, and one charred truck body, there are also signs of life. Some 21,000 slash pine seedlings, for example, just six inches high and planted two years ago under a grant from American Forests, a nonprofit ecology foundation, are alive and now exposed to sunlight. Pale green shoots of grasses and other fire-tolerant species have already sprouted, and dozens of mourning doves have moved in to feast on seeds.

"In a couple of weeks, we'll have flowers here -- blazing stars, pineland alamanda, petunias," she says.

Of all the native plants in Dade County threatened by the encroachment of people and the vagaries of nature, none is more endangered than the Southern slash pine. This tall, stately tree -- also known as Dade County pine -- was once the keystone species along what is called the Miami Rock Ridge, a swath of partially exposed oolitic limestone bedrock that runs for about 70 miles between northeastern Dade County to the Mahogany Hammock region of Everglades National Park. The ridge of high ground, no more than 25 feet above sea level and four to ten miles wide, was formed during the Pleistocene Epoch -- the age of glaciers -- and came to host a diverse landscape of plants, over which the slash pine was dominant.

The area was heavily logged in the Thirties and early Forties, and then, after World War II, the settlers came. Prior to the population boom that took place between Roosevelt and Kennedy, so-called pine rocklands in Dade County totaled 180,000 acres. But the years of development and natural disaster have taken a devastating toll. As was well known, Dade County pine was excellent building material, durable and termite-resistant. And the high ground the pines occupied also made the best home sites.

The most dense areas of pine rockland -- bisecting SW 152nd Street between SW 117th Avenue and the Florida Turnpike -- also became favored locations for expansive building projects. In the last half-century, tens of thousands of acres of pinelands have been cleared in the area, for the world's largest blimp base during World War II, an agricultural testing ground, a railroad hub, a University of Miami research center, a Central Intelligence Agency base during the Cold War, and in the Eighties, a zoological park (among the biggest in the U.S.).

Forces beyond human control also wiped out a lot of trees. In September 1945, a fire driven by hurricane-force winds swept through the Richmond Naval Air Station, destroying 3 hangars, 25 blimps, 366 airplanes, 150 other vehicles, and a lot of pine trees.

And in August 1992, Hurricane Andrew came knocking. That storm, with winds through the heart of the pine rockland estimated at 145 miles per hour, snapped pines like match sticks; even today, four years later, those broken, splintered snags still dot South Dade neighborhoods, a bowed and humbled testament to Hurricane Andrew's fury. Estimates by DOF and Dade scientists suggest that between 40 percent and 60 percent of mature slash pines were splintered or uprooted by the storm.

But those trees that perished as the storm raged weren't the only victims. The surviving Pinus elliotti that survived the storm were in as much shock as their human neighbors. Stressed and fighting for life, Dade's pines were ripe for voracious insect predators, especially four species of quarter-inch-long bark beetles called Ips engravers. As entomologist Jim Meeker explains it, these little spiny critters awakened one day in the spring of 1993 to what was a once-in-a-lifetime buffet of dead and sickly trees.

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