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

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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.

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.

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.

"We are trying to educate the politicians and the public that we need to do more burning," says Douglas D. Erskine, chief of the National Park Service's fire management program center in Boise, Idaho. "But when you spend 75 years putting fires out -- and promoting Smokey Bear -- the public has the impression that all fires are bad. That's one of the main things we are trying to overcome with education." Which is not to say that Smokey, the ursine nag, and his "Only you... fire prevention message is about to be replaced by Beavis and Butt-head yelling "Fire! Fire!" But as the Interagency Fire Center Report concludes, "Wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem."

Among those places where fire has already been reintroduced is Everglades National Park. In the years following the park's founding in 1947, managers here followed the federal guidelines for all national preserves: Fire is a destroyer, thus fires must be actively suppressed. By the early Fifties, firefighters' skill in stomping out blazes, along with a series of dry years, led to an explosive buildup of fuels and some lightning-sparked fires that just could not be extinguished. That led to a reassessment of fire policy, and as a result the first federally sponsored prescribed fire was touched off in Everglades National Park in 1958.

Still, as people moved in right up to the park's eastern edge, prescribed fires were employed sparingly, and the result has been a huge buildup of hardwood underbrush and exotic plants in the 19,000 acres of pineland inside park boundaries. This summer prescribed burn specialist John Segar, who was posted here from Nebraska in October, hopes to put a match to thousands of acres just west of Homestead.

On a recent Friday, Segar is sitting in front of about ten rangers and firefighters gathered in a cinderblock building down the road from the Royal Palm Visitors Center. He is going over procedures for burning a 120-acre section of pineland near the park's main entrance. Segar, age 35, briefs his troops with a practiced going-to-war nonchalance in an address laced with hotshot argot and fire-starter lingo. He indicates a map of the battlefield. "We're going to go in and finish up blocks U and Y, where we got rained out on Monday," he says. "You can see the hardwoods want to take that area over, so we want to do a good number in there. Since the hurricane, we don't know what [debris] has been put into the brush, so stay out of the smoke.

"Kim," Segar says to fire technician Kim Thatcher, "you're going to be the ignition specialist. We'll do a test burn near the road, so the trick for us is to get that smoke to disperse. We want to burn that area hot, Kim, so get as much fire as you can in there.

"We'll string some fire with the drip torches, and toss some fire into other spots, into the sawgrass by the canal, with the fusees [combustible fuses] and the bang pistol. Watch the ignition pattern in here.

"Have plenty of hose, and plenty of water, because we're going to be near the buildings at the visitors center. If something happens... Well, I think everything is going to go pretty much straight up. But make sure that nothing spots back to the east, to the maintenance area. We don't want to burn down the maintenance area." Segar pauses, then adds, "And we won't.

"We're going to go up past the recycling bins, and tie in to that old burn scar. When you light it up, it's going to rip. So light it up and get out of there. I know there are some pallets in the area, and maybe some trailers.

"There is some rain around, so watch for wind shifts. Keep communications on channel 8.

"For safety, the usual. Poisonwood [smoke danger]. Don't walk in there; just toss fusees in. If there is lightning, get in the trucks and wait it out. We'll be monitoring the heat and RH [relative humidity]. Be safe.

"Any questions?" asks Segar.
Silence. "Time to burn," says someone in response, and the group pushes back from the tables and heads out the back door. By the trucks -- pickups fitted with water tanks and gas-powered pumps -- the crew suits up, pulling on char-marked yellow jump suits and lacing up their high-top leather boots. They already smell like smoke.

Among today's crew are four firefighters on temporary assignment from Yellowstone National Park, including 31-year-old Dan Warthin, a burly, powerful-looking man whose curly blond hair hangs down in ringlets from under his hardhat. He is wearing a web belt strung with three canteens and a radio. Strapped across his chest is a harness that holds a small, multipocketed pack which contains a penknife, pens and writing paper, a tube of Blistex, a granola bar, a compass, a whistle, a tiny flashlight, spare batteries for the radio, a Bic lighter, wooden matches, a briefing card of emergency-procedure reminders, a blank fire-behavior report sheet, a pair of ear plugs, eye goggles, and a small, crushed roll of toilet paper. In a separate pack at his waist is a portable fire shelter, which is a sheet of lightweight, aluminum-looking material that unfolds to make a cover in case he should be surrounded by fire. "If you have to pull out the fire shelter," says Warthin, "you screwed up."

Dark thunderheads are building in the west when the crew circles the trucks and reassembles at the starting point yards from the park's main entrance. As Segar goes over the game plan once more, an Eastern meadowlark, roused by the commotion, emerges from the tall grass, perches at the top of a small live oak, and rasps out an alarm call, as if to say, "Whatever you people are about to do, don't." But the storms seem to be stationary, and Segar decides to ignore the bird. "Let's go for it," he says.

As a couple of the crew wrap a power pole in a fire shelter blanket, and hose down the base with water, Warthin, Vanessa Miller, and David Kelly button up their jump suits, pull on gloves, and fire up the drip torches. Within seconds pumpkin-color flames are licking at the scrub, and the smoke billowing across the roadway is so dense that park police are stopping the German tourists to quell their fears of Miami mayhem and to tell them to flick on the headlights of their rental cars. In a light breeze gusting to ten miles per hour, the fire spreads through the pineland, which is so cluttered with brush and little hardwoods that it looks more like rain forest than rockland.

Thatcher and a colleague drive down a levee alongside the canal, park, and begin lobbing lighted fusees into the grass on the other side. Some of them ignite the grass and bushes along the bank, and slowly the fire spreads, while a few others end up in the water, where they magically bubble under the surface like lingering taunts.

As the crew fans out, Segar hustles to keep track of it all, checking on wind shifts, directing the placement of the fire trucks, reassuring the administrative staff that the fire is under control. "Burning down an administration building," Segar deadpans, "is what you'd call a career-limiting incident."

Segar's job is to see that the fire is controlled and contained. "It's planned out, but still this job is more challenging than fun. Often stressful," he says, and to prove it he gets a radio call that smoke is rising from the middle of a sawgrass prairie several hundred yards on the wrong side of the road. He sends a couple of crew members to check it out, and they slog out into the shin-deep water.

"The hard part for us is that Mother Nature is still not real predictable, especially in South Florida," Segar explains. "On days when it's supposed to be bone dry, it rains. That's just the way it is. You can't forecast the weather with a great deal of certainty. So despite all the best planning, we still have to be ready to react. I have a checklist, and I make sure all my bases are covered. I look at the big picture, and anticipate being surprised. I have extra people there. So if the fire goes according to plan, we're all sitting around and looking like we're wasting the taxpayers' money."

Neither Segar nor Klein, who are acquainted but have not worked fires together, admits to any pyromaniacal tendencies. As kids growing up in Virginia and Michigan, respectively, neither set their bedrooms ablaze. But they agree that there is something almost illicitly thrilling about having a license to burn, about taking a flamethrower to a tinderbox forest and then stepping back in wonder as one of nature's elemental forces mushrooms into a monster and then runs off to lay waste to everything in its path. Unleashing acres of combustion is awesome.

Klein and Segar also agree that enjoying a career with fire is not gender-related. Indeed Segar's six-person prescribed burn crew is 50-50 male and female. "In the past, the job of firefighter was seen as a macho profession, but now there are more women in it," says Segar. "And I don't see it as a male thing. There are times when it's a fun thing to do, and there are other times when it's 95 degrees, high humidity, mosquitoes, dehydration, poisonwood.

"I think the common attribute we have is a love of the outdoors, and we like to be challenged, physically and mentally."

Klein cops to "that adrenaline thing when you light it up. When you're with that drip torch, dropping lines of fire behind you," she says, "it can be a little scary when it goes off."

Yet among nonprofessionals, adds Klein, the testosterone test associated with fire still comes up positive. "I do a lot of camping," she explains, "and it's amazing that men think they're the only ones who can start a fire. I bet in caveman times, women were in charge of the fire. But you wouldn't know that when it's time to cook the hot dogs."

Several days after the burn at the Nixon Smiley Preserve, Klein and the Department of Forestry rangers convene in a picnic shelter at Tropical Park to go over maps, job assignments, and safety procedures. The target this Thursday is a four-acre stand of slash pine between the tennis courts and the 826 expressway. This patch of trees is known as a popular gay trysting spot, and one of the rangers jokes that the last fire to go through here was touched off by friction.

The area is of particular interest to Klein because it is among the last refuges for one of the four pineland endangered plants, the Crenulate Lead plant, a herbaceous ground cover that to the untrained eye looks like any one of scores of green creepers growing low among the pine cones. But this plant is so rare that biologists have attempted to wire silver ID tags to every one in these woods. "This plant," says Klein, "only grows in four other places in the U.S."

After a twenty-minute review of job assignments and procedures, the crew is ready to move out and set the woods on fire. Again the DOF's Skip Russell is to serve as burn boss, and his superior, Rick Vasquez, supervisor for Dade and Monroe counties, is also on hand with a drip torch. But just as the group begins to scatter from the shelter, a low, purple rain cloud appears overhead and dumps fifteen minutes of hard rain right on the pineland.

After the sun returns, Vasquez ponders the the situation for a few minutes, confers with Russell, and then calls off the fire. Everyone is visibly disappointed. "It costs us a lot of money in man hours and equipment, but you have to think of safety first. We could have waited an hour, and still got the fire going, but with the fuel wet, there would have been a lot of smoke, and we've got 874, 826, and Bird Road -- major highways -- right there," says Vasquez.

"Fire can be spectacular when there are a lot of flames. So that's a thrill. But I'm a forester, so a bigger thrill for me is when the fire passes, and the vegetation is consumed, and we restore the forest to the way it should be. That's my thrill.

In last week's issue, a photo caption in the story "Playing with Fire" incorrectly identified the subject of the photo. The man identified as burn specialist John Segar is actually Mitch Burgard of the National Park Service. New Times regrets the error.Info:Published:

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