MAXWELL:  Plagued by rainy season’s lightning fires

6/6/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


On Monday, I opened my front door a bit past 5 a.m. to get the New York Times. When warm air hit my face, I knew that summer had arrived.

But something else also hit me in the face: the smothering pungency of smoke from distant wildfires, some burning several hundred miles away. Even in the darkness, I saw the thick, gray haze that engulfed the region _ if not most of the state. When I left for work at 7:15, the haze was denser, the odor stronger. At 9, I looked out an office window and could not see the calm waters of Tampa Bay through the smoke.

I learned that a brush fire, probably started by lightning, had scorched 1,400 acres in adjacent Manatee County on Sunday. But the Manatee fire was only one culprit of Pinellas’ haze. Lightning had sparked 57 other fires across the peninsula, burning 4,411 acres and sending plumes of smoke skyward.

In drought-stricken Dixie and Lafayette counties in the north-central region of the state, for example, the Mallory Swamp fires were decimating 61,000 acres, and in the nearby Koon Lake area, 1,300 acres were going up in smoke.

The Everglades also had lightning-ignited flames. There, more than 600 acres were burning. On Interstate 4 and other highways in Polk and Orange counties, visibility was next to nothing. Smoldering fuel combined with fog in Polk County woodlands had formed a blanket over the area, making driving more dangerous than it had been in years.

A week earlier, Henry John Pileggi Jr., 43, of Orlando, was killed when heavy smoke caused him to rear-end an 18-wheeler. Ten other drivers were injured, one severely. Alligator Alley, the stretch of Interstate 75 that transverses the Everglades and Big Cypress National Park from Naples to Fort Lauderdale, frequently has been closed because of fog and smoke. Since Jan. 1, nearly 3,000 acres have burned in Everglades National Park.

Thousands of firefighters from Florida and at least five other states are trying to extinguish some blazes and contain others. Since Jan. 1, more than 3,000 fires, some in major commercial timber holdings, have destroyed nearly a quarter-million acres statewide.

Because the hurricane and the rainy seasons have begun, relief is on the horizon. But state fire officials are too savvy to rave because, paradoxically, the wet season also spells trouble: It is the prime time for lightning strikes.

“We have transitioned into the period where most of our fires are being caused by lightning,” Division of Forestry spokesman Gene Madden told the Associated Press the other day. “This is another critical time for us.”

From the Panhandle to the Keys, the state is a tinderbox, a repository of untold tons of petrified leaves, needles, twigs and branches waiting to burn beneath fragile layers of greenery.

Entire communities, most of them new and upscale, sit inside timberland that is hostile to human habitation. Residents of these communities hate and fear fire, man-made and natural. But Florida, a tropical landscape, must have fire to maintain ecological balance. Forestry officials preach that, like it or not, Florida’s woods should and will burn. In the absence of natural fires, controlled burns _ those planned and professionally carried out _ are the next best thing. They may be most effective; they certainly are safer.

“You can’t have wildfires if you have a prescribed fire,” biologist Jim Stevenson told me two years ago. “There’s no better insurance.”

But Florida thumbs its nose at nature’s wisdom: New houses built in wooded areas make fire officials wary of controlled burns, a condition that lets dangerous fuel pile up. As residents douse each flame and complain about controlled burns, they had better prepare for wildfires _ some destined to destroy their homes.

To the detriment of the entire state, officials, afraid of liability, relent to people living in the wrong places _ woodlands where fires are a natural phenomenon.

And so, we have months of bad, often fatal, air. I have older relatives throughout the state whose respiratory illnesses become severe when the haze comes. (We also pay higher-than-necessary insurance rates because of fires that threaten misplaced homes.)

When I see and smell the haze, I realize that despite Florida’s very long, L-shaped geography, the 16-million of us on the peninsula are connected by more than politics. We also are connected by natural phenomena and events: water, flood, drought, heat, insects, lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes _ and fire and smoke.