Federal officials said they are investigating at least nine fires that were intentionally started in Everglades National Park in South Florida in recent weeks, occurring at a rate that the National Park Service said was higher than normal.
Everglades National Park and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday that they are seeking more information about these fires.
The cause of the fires remains under investigation, but Everglades National Park spokeswoman Allyson Gantt told The Washington Post that, typically, human-caused fires in the park may occur because of campfires that aren’t extinguished or cigarettes left near dry grass.
“You can remain anonymous & help protect our most precious lands!” ATF in Miami tweeted, with a tip line urging people to call with information about the fires.
Help @ATFMiami & @EvergladesNPS ! If you have any info about the intentionally set fires in the Everglades (via Homestead entrance) please call us at: 1-888-ATF-TIPS or National Park Svc at: 1-888-653-0009. You can remain anonymous & help protect our most precious lands! pic.twitter.com/J9qYgruxme— ATF Miami (@ATFMiami) April 27, 2021
Gantt said authorities are looking for anyone who may have observed the fires start, who has video or photos capturing the fires, or who may have seen anyone in the affected areas with “tools that could be used to light a fire.”
While blazes also commonly start in the Everglades because of lightning, Gantt said there was “no detectable lightning recorded within a week before any of the fires were observed and also no indicators that the fire was caused by lightning.”
“In addition to potentially damaging park resources and endangering park visitors and staff, these fires have cost the park hundreds of thousands of dollars for suppression,” the Park Service said in a news release. “As south Florida enters into the driest part of the year, the risk of damaging wildfire increases.”
The call from federal authorities to investigate the fires in South Florida comes as drought conditions and disappointing rain levels in California and across the West have signaled yet another severe fire season in that region, after a devastating fire season in 2020.
Gantt said water levels in South Florida remained high well into the dry season beginning in December, which helped in controlling the recent fires. The wildfire season there generally runs from March to June, as drier conditions last from December to April or May. At this time, water levels are low and flammable grass and shrubs are at their driest, she said.
“Although staff have been able to respond quickly to previous fires, these conditions, combined with the large response area, make the park more susceptible to wildfires that can quickly get out of control,” Gantt said.
Eve Samples, executive director of the conservation group Friends of the Everglades, said it is “alarming to see what the National Park Service has determined are intentionally set fires.”
“It’s an incredibly precious and unique resource, and for anyone to intentionally harm it is disconcerting,” Samples said.
John Kominoski, an associate professor of biological sciences at Florida International University in Miami, said the habitat where the fires burned has adapted to fire, because the area undergoes regular prescribed burns that help maintain the ecosystem. But those fires are planned and must occur under specific conditions, he said.
“Managed fire is a hugely important part of the Everglades ecosystems, but that management occurs at a window of time when the water levels are not too low and when wind levels are not too high,” said Kominoski, who also works on social-ecological research in the Everglades. “At the current time, we’re really getting into peak dry season. … It’s not a good time for intentional fires to be started.”
He said that if these areas are “burned out of sequence, it can be problematic for a habitat that has a lot of endangered species.”
Gantt said that because animals in the habitats where the fires occurred are regularly exposed to fires, they may move to safer ground when a fire occurs. The concerns with potential fires there involve the effect of smoke on local communities and the risk posed to firefighters and the public, she said.
Kominoski said one of the most striking things about Everglades National Park is how accessible it is to people and how narrow the boundary is between the wild land and where people live.
“That makes it a really wonderful resource to communities here, and I think a lot of people rely on that resource for recreation — especially during the pandemic,” he said. “They are publicly accessible places. And I think they should be protected as a public resource.”
To that end, he said, it’s important for people to know that the narrow boundary also means any fires “could burn out of control and burn into human areas.”
“There’s not zero risk of this,” he said.