For Lake O eco-management, fire is healthy

PALMDALE — When asked during a recent conversation at the fire tower station here for any offbeat or funny stories about serving in the Florida Forest Service, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Melissa Yunas recalled one right away. “Danny and I became really good friends…” she started while Senior Ranger Danny Callahan gave a skeptical look and said, almost under his breath, “I don’t know, I forget things a lot.”

“No, you don’t,” she said with a scoff. The question happened to coincide with a discussion they’d been having about the state’s system for keeping track of permitted fires and prescribed burns while discerning ones that might violate the rules or be unpermitted altogether. It also happened that on that slightly breezy day, a prescribed burn was being done around a dozen miles away as the crow flies, east of the Waste Management Glades Landfill on State Road 78, and east of the Moore Haven Canal.

(From their tower on the station site leased from Lykes Bros., “you can see that old construction debris landfill now; it’s about five or six stories high,” Ranger Callahan had said earlier.)

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/(C) 2008 by Ken Steinhoff
A nasty and persistent muck fire on Lake Okeechobee, much like this one captured in 2008 by a bicycling photographer, was the occasion when two Florida Forest Service colleagues bonded.

Ms. Yunas continued. “Danny and I became really good friends when there wasn’t a management program on Lake Okeechobee, and the lake would catch on fire,” she related. “And now there is a management program where they’re actually trying to prescribe-burn it out before it gets too dry, which, it’s very green. For Danny and I, what was it, 10-15 years ago?”

“Fourteen,” he slipped in. “But he doesn’t remember anything,” she quipped.

‘Oh my God, the lake’s on fire!’

Ms. Yunas continued with the story.

“Fourteen years ago, I think we spent almost a month together on Lake Okeechobee because it was extremely dry, caught on fire by lightning, and it was a horrible muck fire. And every time the wind would shift, we’d have a new media market show up… So Fort Myers would be, like, ‘Oh my God, the lake’s on fire!’ Then the wind would shift. Orlando (media) would come out here. ‘Oh my God, the lake’s on fire!’ The winds would shift again. West Palm, ‘Oh, my God, the lake’s on fire!’

“It was like a brand new thing for everybody every time the winds would shift. Because it would blow over them, and it would smoke everybody out. It was very smelly.”

Then she got right to the point.

Understand, it’s part of the plan

“So we’re very GLAD there’s a management program to prevent… not that I don’t like Danny, but spending a month with him? Ahem…” There were giggles around the room.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
A sign along State Road 78, just southwest of the landfill near Moore Haven, notifies passersby that it’s not necessary to report the fire burning beyond the dike on Dec. 12. It was a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission-supervised burn conducted with the help of water management personnel.

Ms. Yunas hastened to point out: “It’s really important for the people and the residents around the lake to understand that, you know, if we don’t manage it, then Mother Nature, or lightning, is going to ignite it and it’s going to burn itself.

“And I’d rather it happen with the right equipment and manpower and wind direction and, of course, when it’s wetter than when it’s so dry that it turns into a muck fire. Because then we’re all babysitting it or trying to extinguish it or defend houses from it, which we were doing at that time.”

Deep breath. Good story! Most of their clothes didn’t survive; the homes they were trying to protect did.

Preventing smelly muck fires

As for the recent prescribed burns inside the Herbert Hoover Dike, near Buckhead Ridge earlier in December and on Lake Okeechobee near the Moore Haven Canal on Dec. 12, the day of these interviews, they have been conducted by South Florida Water Management District personnel with the assistance of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers and watercraft, or the other way around. A single agency is always the prescribed burn manager.

Information is available on those two agencies’ websites about their prescribed burn programs, and the general public is alerted on multiple platforms, including online and with road signs. Often they’ll get multi-day permits from the FFS, and they will only burn on days when weather conditions are optimal.

Ms. Yunas explained a bit more about the program.

“The last one we really can’t talk about because we weren’t on that one,” she said. “But the one before that, we were working with SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Whoever has the resources and the manpower at the time…” she went on.
“We all have the same purpose, to clear out old vegetation whether it’s for the animals … or to reduce the wildfire risk. We all have the same discussions … but it just depends on the timing of the year.”

The SFWMD news release about the Dec. 3 burn said: “Application of prescribed burning is part of an integrated management approach on Lake Okeechobee… (which) is managed in partnership with the FWC, USACE, SFWMD and Audubon of Florida.

Prescribed burning is a safe way to apply natural processes, ensure ecosystem health and reduce the threat of wildfire. Ecologically responsible prescribed burns help improve habitat for fish, waterfowl, wading birds, the Everglades snail kite and other wildlife populations.”

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