Everglades fires scorch park and destroy historic station in Big Cypress

Famed Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher photographs the smoldering ruins of the historic Monroe Station on Sunday after a fire gutted it.
Famed Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher photographs the smoldering ruins of the historic Monroe Station on Sunday after a fire gutted it. Naples Daily News Staff

Wildfire burned across thousands of acres of Everglades National Park on Monday, threatening to scorch habitat for an endangered bird, while a separate fire Saturday destroyed a historic station in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the two blazes but believe the Everglades fire was likely caused by campers or other visitors near the Long Pine Key campground Saturday.

3,810The number of acres burned in Everglades National park by Monday

Altogether, more than 3,800 acres had burned in the park by Monday, with the fire spread by strong winds and dry conditions, said the park’s acting fire management officer, James Sullivan. Roads, firebreaks and earlier burns have prevented the fire from moving to the north, east and west. But at the southern tip, firefighters are working to keep the fire from jumping into habitat used by the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, he said.

The birds, which live in just six locations in the park, are already struggling with high water pumped into the park for the first time in decades at Shark River Slough to ease flooding in a water conservation area north of the Tamiami Trail. Biologists worry high water may lead to one of the worst nesting seasons in decades.

The park remains open, but parts of the main road have been closed to visitors while firefighters keep an eye on the fire’s northern edge, Sullivan said. Because the Everglades ecosystem depends on periodic fires occurring naturally, Sullivan said officials will let the fire burn itself out. They have relied on breaks in the marshes, like old logging roads, to contain it. They also lucked out in one area: a prescribed burn east of the fire last week consumed about 980 acres of potential fire kindling. They also burned about 1,500 acres west of the fire in February.

“That was very useful from preventing this fire from being a lot bigger than it was,” Sullivan said.

Miles away in Collier County, another fire destroyed the historic Monroe Station, once one of six outposts built in the 1920s to provide food, gas and supplies, and a little encouragement, to travelers braving the Tamiami Trail, a new road across South Florida through the remote Everglades.

The buildings, staggered about 12 miles apart in East Collier County, were built by Barron Collier, who owned the land now occupied by Big Cypress and spent about $1 million to complete the western leg of the landmark road. The family turned the station over to the National Park Service in 1988, said park spokesman Bob DeGross.

In a park service survey, historian James Jacobs said the two-story building provided “a unique touchstone to understanding the real estate and development frenzy that defined South Florida from the 1890s through the Great Depression.”

Husband and wife teams were typically hired to run the stations, with the husband “deputized” to handle any trouble that might arise at the isolated posts, Jacobs said. The stations were sold during the Depression.

Park officials had hoped to restore the two-story wood building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 and boasted a colorful past that inspired a loyal following. In 2005, the preserve received $450,000 from a state grant to come up with plans to stabilize the building in order to “mothball it” until enough could be raised for full restoration, DeGross said. But the $500,000 needed for the work was never secured, he said.

It just burnt down to the ground. There’s basically not much left at all except ashes.

Big Cypress National Preserve spokesman Bob DeGross

Everglades City firefighters received a call about the fire about 11:40 p.m. Saturday, he said. By the time they arrived about 17 minutes later, the building was engulfed and eventually burned to its foundation.

“It just burnt down to the ground. There’s basically not much left at all except ashes,” DeGross said.

Conservationists believe the destruction could have been avoided if the park service, which has been struggling with a chronic backlog of maintenance problems, had been able to act sooner.

“There were extensive plans to restore the building, but they were never funded. Why? Now there is nothing left of this building so critical to telling the story of the Tamiami Trail,” Jonathan Ullman, who curated a Tamiami Trail exhibit at the Coral Gables Museum that runs through May 22 and is the Everglades field organizer for the Sierra Club, said in an email.

Of the six built, now only one, privately owned station remains, he said.

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