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In Florida, Effort to Cut Fire Danger Is Still Long-Term

Bringing back natural habitat to limit blazes is not likely to take effect until more flames rip through dry lands.

July 23, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOLDEN GATE, Fla. — For half a century and more, Floridians drained the sheets of water that once bathed the land. They planted alien species that crowded out the native fire-resistant cypress trees and built homes in the midst of the eerie, now-dry swamp-forests.

And they put out fires.

Apart from the drought that brought firestorms to Florida's Atlantic Coast this summer, foresters and environmentalists say, conditions here offer an illustration of the potential danger that can occur when nature and people confront each other.

Yet the region also is home to a multifaceted effort to reduce the fire danger by undoing the damage wrought by development.

For more than a decade, the state has been buying back some of the land from 17,000 people who invested in 52,000 acres. It plans to remove almost 300 miles of roads, return fresh water to uninhabited tracts and restore the natural balance.

The goal is to counter the risk of uncontrollable fire by re-creating a habitat that for eons was sustained by periodic brush-clearing flames that burned themselves out after removing excess fuel.

But that is a long-term goal. In the meantime, the buildup of potential fuel in vast reaches of this largely undeveloped region has left forestry experts fearful that worse is yet to come--if not this year, now that the belated rainy season may finally be underway, then sometime soon.

When forest supervisor Rich Gordon looks out from a 14-story fire tower, all he can see for a 10-miles radius is fuel, kindling for the fire next time. Exotic trees from Australia suck moisture from the sandy soil; ferns and tangles of dried grapevines hug the ground; palmettos offer a ladder for flames to climb onto the fronds of the cabbage palms and, above them, the crowns of struggling pines. So thick is the growth that only a machete, or a bulldozer, could begin to clear a path through it.

The melaleuca, first planted here at least half a century ago when draining the land was a goal of developers, is a particular hazard: It is both fire-ready (its layers of outer bark are as thin as paper, powdery-dry and give off intense heat) and fire-resistant (its inner trunk is soggy with water). Thus, it can transport a fire, fouling the air with thick black smoke, and yet can withstand it. Largely unconsumed by the flames, it quickly sends out ground sprouts and new branches and is soon ready to fuel the next conflagration.

One tract that forest managers burned intentionally in October to reduce the brush nevertheless lit up again in a wildfire ignited by lightning in May. The sandy soil is so absorbent and the sunshine so desiccating that woods drenched one day have caught fire the next.

Much of the swampland around here was once targeted for development. But the housing boom has yet to take off in much of Golden Gate Estates, save for the occasional ranch home built vulnerably close to the swampy woods. And therein lies an opportunity.

In recent years, fire managers in the Big Cypress National Preserve to the south have been conducting the most extensive prescribed burning operation in the national park system, torching segments of the park to reduce the ground fuel.

"The optimal thing is to allow nature to do its thing and, when lightning strikes, to let it burn," says Larry D. Belles, fire management officer at Big Cypress.

That may be fine in his isolated preserve. But in a subdivision where years of fire-suppression have allowed jungle-thick growth to prosper, where houses sit on the edge of forests and a half-foot of water no longer covers the ground to provide a natural suppression system, he says, such a live-and-let-burn approach "isn't going to work." So, when fires strike, Gordon must roll out his bulldozers to cut fire-containing lines through the palms and his tanker trucks to extinguish the blaze.

"Nobody realized the long-term damage they were doing," he said.

"Who thought that by putting in a development up here, the fires would be that much worse? We're just now starting to see some of the problems."

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