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

According to Meeker, who studies bugs for the state department of forestry in Gainesville, Dade's pines were set up for the beetle infestation not only by Andrew, but also by the punishing March 1993 "winter hurricane" that swept the entire East Coast, including Florida, and two succeeding months of severe drought. "Generally, these endemic, native beetles are not threatening to healthy pines," says Meeker. A healthy pine tree repels a beetle attack with a layer of sticky resin that is under pressure and actually pushes the insects away if they try to bore into the tree's core. "But after these three blasts from nature," says Meeker, "the trees were so busy trying to maintain biological function -- replacing broken limbs, making new needles -- that the resin supply was low." And the scavenger beetles moved in, building tunnels in the dead and dying pines, and multiplying like crazy. Meeker says that in the year following the hurricane, the beetle population in Dade "increased 100 fold, and that's a conservative estimate." Eighteen months after Andrew's passage, almost 90 percent of the mature slash pines were dead, and there were very few young trees coming up to replace them. Why? In the absence of the normal cycle of fire, the understory of hardwoods and other shrubs had grown up to effectively block from sunlight and strangle the next generations, the seedling and sapling trees that should have been growing in the pine needle beds beneath their elders. Instead of young pines, the rockland was filled with woody invaders, exotics such as Brazilian pepper, and tall cane grass and sedges.

Today only 4000 acres of pine rockland remain, just two percent of what was here in 1900. Still, the rocklands remain one of the most diverse ecologic communities in South Florida, home to an exuberant menagerie of animals and some 260 native plant species. Twelve of those species are considered rare, according to scientists at Fairchild Tropical Gardens, and four native plants are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rescuing Dade's pinelands from the brink of extinction is Joy Klein's mission. And she intends to rescue them with fire.

Fire as an agent of renewal seems almost counter-intuitive, a corollary of the famously twisted Vietnam War rationale about having to destroy the village in order to save it. But in the case of the pine trees, fire doesn't destroy; it nourishes. In the natural cycle, wildfires sparked by lightning occur with regularity during the rainy season, between May and September. These summertime fires are fast-moving and cleansing, less hot than fires that occur during the winter, when fuels are dry. They rarely kill mature trees, say scientists. Since the summertime fires occur during growing season, those trees that are scorched can refoliate. Fire kills spot fungus, a pine tree pest. And the relatively short time the fire burns at grass level spares the seedlings.

As more and more people moved into Dade, however, the pinelands became more and more balkanized, subdivided into small parcels, where residents and increasingly proficient firefighters extinguished fires set off by lightning before they could perform their historic, vital functions. Without fire in the normal cycle of every two to three years, the pine rocklands grew dangerously unbalanced, clogged with trash trees, lacking in regeneration, in need of renewal.

So far this year, Klein says, the county, along with DOF, has torched several hundred acres of pineland, including a 3.4-acre site at SW 127th Avenue and 248th Street that is to be replanted with 500 young pines and dedicated August 17 as the Andrew Dodge New Pines Global Relief Forest, in honor of a DERM public information officer who died in February. Scheduled soon are fires in Tropical Park and on 45 acres of the 250-acre Navy Wells site in Florida City.

But also on the list to ignite are small lots and wedges of pineland in the midst of busy residential neighborhoods, and these fires are the ones that require Klein to spin some public relations. Of course there is opposition, especially in upscale sections such as Pinecrest, where people who pay $300,000 and up for big lots and some economic exclusivity think that an investment as grand as that ought to guarantee an exemption from irritating wood smoke. "It's interesting," says Klein. "People from developing countries are not surprised by fires near their homes. But others are quite surprised. It's the not-in-my-backyard syndrome."

So Klein lays the groundwork at community meetings, with color slides and charts and case histories. She talks about the prescribed burn at the Deering Estate that escaped in 1989, and threatened the surrounding neighborhood, and the wildfire near Metrozoo in March, which threw a major scare into the animals and their keepers, and of the frequent arson outbreaks that plague the area around unfenced Larry and Penny Thompson Park in South Dade.

Klein makes her case, and usually, she says, "people realize that they are missing that pine canopy they had before the hurricane. The people who live there want woods. Now they have to learn to live with smoke too."

It is not just in Miami's southwestern suburbs and on Dade County lands where bureaucrats are rediscovering fire. Massive, uncontrollable wildfires have been roaring through federal park lands out west each summer for a decade or more, and this year is no exception. But it was the six-month inferno that burned 1.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park and closed it to the public in 1988, and the 1994 Glenwood Springs, Colorado, wildfire in which twelve firefighters died that finally sparked government managers to have a look at fire policy. And what they found, as reported in a study of federal wilderness fire management by the National Interagency Fire Center released last December, was that there, too, rangers had become so adept at putting out fires that fuel loads throughout the park system were the highest in history. Thus, when a lightning bolt or a match touches off a fire, very quickly it is hell.

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