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Boating north through Whitewater Bay in Florida's Everglades National Park, USGS scientists noticed a thin plume of smoke rising midway along Cape Sable to the west.

Map shows location of work.
Cape Sable in southwest Florida (red square on inset map).

by Paul R. Nelson

Departing Flamingo Utility Basin in Florida's Everglades National Park on April 7, 2011, and boating north through Whitewater Bay, we noticed a thin plume of smoke rising midway along Cape Sable to the west. Our task for the day involved sampling five Surface Elevation Tables (SETs) established in 1996 and measured quarterly. (SETs are mechanical leveling devices for measuring the elevation change of wetland sediment.)

The SETs are located along Big Sable Creek on the northwest coast of Cape Sable within Everglades National Park. By the time we arrived, tethered our vessel to the shore, and set up our equipment, the sky had darkened and ash had begun to fall. Winds were light and steady from the southeast; I estimated that the fire was still several miles away and no threat to us.

The irony was that we had been scheduled to fly by helicopter that day to our sites up on the Lostmans River, many miles to the north, but because of a fire in Big Cypress National Preserve, ignited by lightning the day before, the National Park Service (NPS) needed the helicopter to assist in monitoring and containing that fire. The lack of a helicopter moved us up a day in our sampling schedule and routed us here within sight and smell of the Cape Sable fire.

A woman in a boat looks out at a fire far away and across the water.
USGS intern Marie Andersson and the Cape Sable fire.

After completing the sampling and exiting Big Sable Creek into the Gulf of Mexico for the return trip to Flamingo, we saw that the smoke had risen high above and drifted several miles westward out to sea. Running parallel to Cape Sable from north to south on the inside passage of Whitewater Bay, we saw now that much of the cape was burning, and new, isolated blazes were beginning to grow. I suspected a prescribed burn. The presence of NPS fire-management personnel had increased around Flamingo over the past few days, and the park had been under "high fire risk" for weeks. 

Upon calling NPS Dispatch and closing our float plan, we were informed by an NPS employee that it was indeed a prescribed burn, involving nearly 8,000 acres, including much of the area burned by wildfire in 2008 as well as some areas not exposed to fire for more than 10 years. Fires are essential to the region in clearing, restoring, and maintaining habitat (especially that of the critically endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow) and reducing the accumulation of hazardous fuel.

An estuary area in the haze of a nearby wildfire.
Ash falling at Big Sable Creek hydrostation.
Smoke rises from land across water.
Smoke drifting off Cape Sable into the Gulf of Mexico.
Smoke plume rises above water.
Cape Sable fire reaching the shores of Whitewater Bay.
A little bird with a band around its leg balances on a reed of tall grass.
Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis) in Everglades National Park. This individual was part of a demographic study of the effects of fire on sparrow abundance and nesting success. Photograph taken by David A. La Puma on January 8, 2006.

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