The recent series of large brush fires along Card Sound Road — one of only two roads leading in and out of the Florida Keys — may be the result of arsonists or careless off-road vehicle riders, according to firefighters battling the blazes.
Officials have closed both Card Sound Road and the 18 Mile Stretch of U.S. 1 several times since Sunday because smoke from the fires frequently pours onto the roadway and limits visibility.
Most of the fires have been off of Card Sound Road. A 15-acre fire grew to 60 acres between Monday and Tuesday, and a new 30-acre fire started Wednesday morning. By noon, that fire jumped from the east side of the roadway to the west side, prompting officials to close both northbound and southbound lanes. By Thursday morning, the fire grew to 250 acres, according to the Florida Forest Service.
“We don’t give it a containment yet because it keeps flaring up,” said Terrance Gadson, Florida area supervisor for the Florida Forest Service.
The heavily wooded area off Florida City is popular with all-terrain vehicle riders, and Gadson said they are likely the cause of the fires, either deliberately or unintentionally.
“I’m thinking all of these are ATVs, guys out riding, and they’re not paying attention or it’s intentional,” Gadson said. “You get out there, like this morning, and there’s fresh tracks everywhere.”
“I was able to go down to 167th Avenue, and as I rolled down there, you can see where someone, whether it was ATVs or someone, just strung a fire,” Gadson said.
Monday night, smoke from the fire billowed out onto the 18-Mile Stretch thick enough for officials to close the highway in both directions for about an hour.
Meanwhile, another — larger — fire continued to burn brush nearby, on the west side of U.S. 1 near the Gateway Estates trailer park, 35250 SW 177 Court in Homestead. That fire was called in around 4 a.m. Sunday morning, Scott Peterich, with the Forest Service, said, and was burning up to 90 acres at its peak. As of Wednesday afternoon, firefighters were still battling the so-called “trailer park fire.”
The flames were “right up against the trailers,” but firefighters were able to contain it before it burned any structures, Peterich said.
Gadson only has three men fighting the fires. They roll toward the flames on tracked vehicles known as bombardiers, which haul tanks that carry around 500 gallons of water. The Forest Service firefighters are joined by dozens of Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue firefighters and their tanker trucks.
On Wednesday, Forest Service firefighters on a bombardier forced an opening into the thick brush and went deep into the woods to face a rapidly-growing fire. On the roadway, Miami-Dade firefighters sprayed the edges of the flames on the east side of Card Sound, but it wasn’t enough to stop the fire from jumping the road and catching the tall grass on the other side alight.
Thick smoke surrounded the immediate area, making it difficult to breathe. Ash fell like snow.
Whoever or whatever is to blame for the fires, it’s a mixture of wetness and dryness that is making it even more difficult to put them out. South Florida in the winter is normally dry, and this year is no exception.
“We’re still in the winter. It may not feel like it, but we are,” Gadson said. “We get a cold snap, and this grass right here will burn. It’s ready to go.”
But the area off Card Sound Road and the Stretch is part of the Everglades. What looks like dry land is actually water and mud. Getting personnel and heavy equipment deep into the woods to put out the flames is easier said than done in such conditions.
“The terrain is real muddy and boggy,” Gadson said. “So, you gotta be extra careful.”
Also, Hurricane Irma left plenty of sticks, branches and pine needles on the ground — perfect fuel for brush fires — when the Category 4 storm blew threw the area in September.
“There’s lots of stuff everywhere,” Gadson said. “Heavy stuff.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204