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Lightning Strike Ignites Florida Everglades Fire

NOEL KING, BYLINE: This week, lightning started a fire in the Florida Everglades. The fire grew until it was twice the size of Manhattan, and all of that Everglade muck is making this a tricky job for firefighters. Jenny Staletovich has the story from member station WLRN in Miami. When it comes to fighting fires across South Florida's vast marshes, weather can be a firefighter's best friend or biggest enemy.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thunderstorms will be possible today across South Florida, where the heat index is forecast to exceed 108 for two hours or more...

JENNY STALETOVICH, BYLINE: This week, the wildfire doubled in size after a typical summer storm rolled in and kicked up the wind. It hasn't threatened any homes or businesses, just highways and power lines.

MICHAEL BECK: I got a call from a friend, and he said, hey, it looks like there's some storm cells out to the northeast. I said, OK, cool.

STALETOVICH: That's Michael Beck, a firefighter with the Division of Forestry, and the incident commander.

BECK: Like, blew up the fire. You know, it moved a lot faster, a lot quicker. The flame lengths, the fire intensity - you know, more than doubled in flame lengths.

STALETOVICH: Do you just get out of the way at that point?

BECK: Yeah. Typically, when a thunderstorm is throwing down it's down bursts, you know - 'cause the winds are really sporadic, and they're really - you're not sure of what the winds can do. It's really an unstable atmosphere.

STALETOVICH: Gusts were as high as 70 miles per hour, whipping the fire across the saw grass. Fire is a natural part of Florida's marshes, and it's necessary to maintain the health of the ecosystem, which is home to several-dozen protected species, like the wood stork and the snail kite. But when wildfire threatens highways or power lines, these firefighters swing into action. Heavy equipment can sink in muck. So that means using airboats to flatten saw grass or pingpong balls filled with accelerant and dropped from planes to light back fires.

SCOTT PETERICH: Our main objective is to keep it here.

STALETOVICH: Scott Peterich is the department's wildfire mitigation specialist. He says the most dangerous time is in the dry season, when muck fires can burn through thousands of years of peat at the bottom of the marsh. Rain is important, but with it comes lightning.

PETERICH: We have to have that rain because of the heat and the humidity. This area will dry up, and then the land manager doesn't have the resources or the water to put back. So now we're worried about muck fires. We're worried about just raging wildfires.

STALETOVICH: Forecasters expect more rain in the coming days, which should help extinguish what's burning now. And with the wet season in full swing and the fast-growing saw grass, Peterich says all signs of the fire could be gone in just a few months.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Staletovich in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.