By Kathy Bushouse, Salli James, Natasha Butler and Robert McClure (Staff Writers)
Published Thursday, May 27, 1999
With no substantial rain and only glorious sunshine in the forecast, the Everglades demanded emergency human measures on Wednesday to drown one of the largest muck fires in recent years and stifle the acrid smoke pouring over South Florida communities each morning. Today “it will be smelly like someone emptied an ashtray on your living room floor,” said Jim Lushine, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. He said the forecast did not call for significant rain until the middle of next week and that coastal areas might continue to see smoke through midday.
“The good news is by the end of the weekend, the wind will shift around to an easterly direction, ” he said. “Once the wind shifts around, the smoke will be going to the west coast. The people in NapIes and Fort Myers will have to deal with it.” Not willing to wait, water managers moved five massive pumps into place around the burned-out Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area, 15 miles west of U.S. 27. It could take a week for the torrent of water, sucked from bordering canals, to drown the 10,000-acre subsurface fire, said David Utley, manager of the state Division of Forestry’s Everglades District Office.
“We wouldn’t have to do this if the rainy-season would cooperate and give us 3 to 4 inches of rain,” Utley said. The surface fires were extinguished on Tuesday by forestry officials setting backfires to cut off the flames’ path through the sawgrass. The source of the smoke now is the fire burning through the organically rich, highly flammable black peat that has built up in the Everglades for hundreds of years as dead sawgrass, wax myrtle and other vegetation fell to the ground, rotted and composted.
Ignited by the surface fires that scorched 26,000 of the Rotenberger’s 27,810 acres, the muck fire is creating a different kind of smoke. It’s a thick, white smoke as opposed to the black smoke of burning sawgrass, said Blake Sasse, who manages Rotenberger. “It looks more like you are driving through fog.” Health authorities continued to advise people with bronchitis, emphysema, congestive heart failure and other such ailments to avoid or limit outdoor activity. “At nighttime and early morning, it gets pretty nasty,” Utley said.
He said his office is hearing from people fuming over the Everglades smoke. Some callers, he said, complained, “It doesn’t smell like this in New York,” and are offering their own tips on how to put out the fire. “There’s a lot of irate people out there,” Utley said. Emergency operators found some relief on Wednesday as worried calls decreased. Broward County’s 911 emergency center answered about a half-dozen smoke-related calls an hour on Wednesday, according to Todd LeDuc, spokesman for Broward County’s Fire-Rescue Division.
A creamy-white mist shrouded the skyline of downtown Miami on Wednesday morning. By early afternoon, the acidic scent of the air had mostly disappeared along with the smoke. It was still nearly impossible to make out the outlines of Miami’s downtown from ramps leading over the Golden Glades interchange. Manny Alfred said 30 percent of the cars rolling into Sonny’s Car Wash in Plantation bore the remote fire’s sooty white stamp. “I’ve seen a good number of cars come in with ash. If you have a dark [vehicle], you really notice the difference,” said Alfred, manager of the carwash.
President and owner Russ Sweet of Dolphin Pool Cleaners in Coral Springs said: “We’ve had a lot of calls, especially from people living out toward the western edge of town, the Everglades, and the west Broward area. We’ve seen a lot of ash and dirt where you wouldn’t normally see it,” he said.
“We’ve had comments from golfers saying it’s tough to breathe,” said Judy Alvarez, head golf professional at Villa Delray Golf Club in Delray Beach. But there has been no decrease in golfers making tee times. “Golfers at Villa Delray are diehard. They’re afraid of a typhoon or a hurricane, but not smoke.” Water managers have high hopes for their pumps. Crews will assemble the pumps today, a process that could take at least a day. “I think it will be able to put the worst of it out pretty quickly,” Sasse said.
The pumps will siphon out of the Miami Canal at a rate ranging from 16,000 gallons to 25,000 gallons a minute, said the Deerfield Beach contractor who supplied them, Moving Water Industries. Tucked between the Hendry County line and Miami Canal and just north of the Broward County line, Rotenberger is one of the hardest places to fight a muck fire, which lacks visible flames but is revealed by plumes of wispy smoke puffing out of the ground, Sasse said. The Rotenberger was severed from the Everglades years ago by drainage canals and farming. Ids not connected to South Florida’s canal and pump network, where water can be injected with a flip of a switch in West Palm Beach.
Under a state Everglades restoration program, pumps are scheduled to be installed in the area’s northwest corner in spring of 2000 to help rehydrate the area, which could make it less vulnerable to muck fires. The last two major muck fires in Rotenberger occurred in 1995, when 3,000 acres of peat incinerated, and in 1981, when 6,000 acres burned.