For more than 40 years, grapefruit grew juicy and ripe on this 1,200-acre grove inland from the Atlantic. Now there is little left but the jagged branches of torn-up trees, and spicy smoke fills the hot midday air as one by one, they are burned to powdery ash.
"This just makes me sick," said John E. Quigley II, an environmental supervisor with the Florida Bureau of Pest Eradication and Control, who looked on as flames at least 15 feet high consumed yet another grapefruit tree. "I'm so disenchanted by this, it hurts."
Last year's hurricanes dropped a bacteriological bomb on Florida's already sorely challenged citrus industry, widely dispersing a virulently contagious germ that causes citrus canker -- a disease harmless to humans and animals but ruinous to oranges and grapefruit.
No chemical has been found that can destroy the germs without harming the trees. So during the summer, Florida's Department of Agriculture announced a mammoth smash-and-burn effort to rid commercial groves of tainted or at-risk trees. It is the equivalent of destroying every tree in an area the size of Miami.
Until last summer, canker had been virtually eliminated in Florida except in two southeastern counties. The rain droplets borne by the shrieking winds of hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne carried the bacteria into 13 other counties, including prime commercial citrus-growing areas north of Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico and here on the Eastern Seaboard about 120 miles north of Miami.
If nothing is done to combat the Xanthomonas axonopodis bacterium -- so tiny that 25,000 laid end-to-end would measure one inch -- it could doom Florida's citrus industry, said Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture's canker eradication program.
"With the multitude of hosts out there, the thousands of acres, it's got plenty of opportunity to spread," Fagan said. "Eventually, it would devastate, wipe out a $9 billion industry."
Citrus canker produces brown lesions on leaves and fruit, debilitates trees and causes up to half of their fruit to drop to the ground before ripening.
In 1915, Florida's much smaller citrus industry was menaced by an outbreak of canker that took almost two decades to contain and stamp out.
Since 1995, Florida and the U.S. government have spent about $500 million to control citrus canker, in what state and federal officials call the largest pest eradication program in history. About 5.4 million commercial and nursery citrus trees, and nearly 800,000 trees in homeowners' yards, have been removed to arrest the disease.
The state and federal governments budgeted more than $50 million this year for canker eradication.
Instead of tearing up and burning 30 acres of infected grove a day, the daily goal is to eliminate 600 acres, or nearly a square mile. Bids have been solicited from landscaping and tree-removal companies.
"If we don't have a catastrophic storm season, we can eradicate it," state Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said in announcing the stepped-up program. If not for last year's hurricanes, Bronson said, canker in Florida might be history.
Last year, the Indian River area, which grows the state's best grapefruit and oranges for eating, was lashed by Frances and Jeanne. The first signs of canker surfaced in January in a 30-acre grove.
"It took the wind out of me," Quigley said. "I knew what was going to happen."
So far this year, the disease has been detected in 66 locations in the five counties that make up the Indian River citrus district.
In Quigley's 15 years as a Florida agricultural official, flattening so much productive land is the worst task he has ever had, he said. "Nothing else comes close."
Florida's citrus industry faces other challenges, including a decline in orange juice consumption from historic highs; competition from Brazil; demand for agricultural land for housing; and the risk of freezes and more hurricanes. But none of those problems has the destructive potential of canker, said Terence McElroy, a Florida Agriculture Department spokesman in Tallahassee.
"If citrus canker isn't eradicated and eradicated quickly, then those other challenges will be moot, because there will be no citrus industry," he said.