The Everglades Are on Fire

Welp.
Gif: CNN (Twitter)

The Democratic National Committee refuses to hold a climate change-focused debate despite calls for one from activists and candidates. And now, it would seem the Everglades are also helping to make their case.

Ahead of the first presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday, part of the Everglades about 30 miles northwest of downtown caught fire. Lightning sparked the brush fire on Sunday, and it’s since been burning largely out of control with fire managers saying they’ll need to wait for rain to put the thing out. Now, fires are a part of life the Everglades. But there are also signs that climate change will make those fires worse, and talking about addressing those risks seems like a pretty good idea with this blaze as a backdrop.

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As of Tuesday morning, the fire—dubbed the Sawgrass Fire—had consumed about 18,500 acres and was about 23 percent contained, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Scott Peterich, wildlife mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service’s Everglades District, told Earther the blaze is burning on state managed land, largely through sawgrass ubiquitous throughout the Everglades and cattails. The area has been burned before, but it’s been a number of years. Peterich said that’s in part why the fire has been putting up so much smoke. Fire managers are watching the fire to ensure it doesn’t get further out of control as well as any changes in wind direction that could steer smoke toward the highway and the Fort Lauderdale-Miami metro area to the east.

“What we’re waiting for is a significant amount of rain on it to put the fire out,” Peterich said.

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Fire is a part of the Everglades. While its nickname may be the River of Grass, the Everglades is a sprawling array of different ecosystems. It has open prairies, hammocks of pines, and other flammable vegetation so yes, fires happen. A large fire sparked up on state land in December last year, and firefighters used a 30,000 acre controlled burn this spring to mimic nature this spring.

And fires are particularly common when there are El Niño conditions. The warming of waters in the tropical Pacific can tilt weather patterns in South Florida toward more dry conditions in winter.

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This year’s El Niño was a weak one, but it still likely exerted some influence on South Florida. Parts of the region have seen near-normal rainfall since the start of the year but the gradient has been tight in segueing to drought. Some of the Everglades, for example, have seen a top 10 dry start to the year after only receiving less than a quarter of their normal rainfall, according to statistics kept by the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

At the same time, human factors have made the Everglades more flammable. The Everglades were drained, dammed, and beaten back by agricultural interests as well as cities to the east. That turned the River of Grass into a drier grassland and left peat deposits that were formerly underwater exposed to burn. Florida’s new Republican governor has made moves to shore up the battered ecosystem, but recovery is a long ways away and big fires aren’t going anywhere.

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And that brings us to climate change. Sea level rise is the climate impact most often associated with the Everglades as the oceans eats away at coastal habitat. But fires are also likely to increase in the Everglades. Research indicates the Everglades is likely to see less rain in the coming century. That will further dry an already diminished landscape, priming grasses to burn and exposing more peat to burn according to further research. Large fire season is also expected to start earlier and the number of large fires—defined as fires greater than 12,355 acres, like the Sawgrass Fire—are expected to become more common for the region. Fires in the western U.S. are projected to get even worse, as well.

All of which brings us back to the debate a stone’s throw away. Peterich said the winds are unlikely to blow smoke toward Miami in the coming days. But the future on Miami’s horizon is a reminder of the stakes in the next election, including fires that could burn ever brighter.

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