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Seminole Fire Fighters Help Control Wildfires

1999 Swamp Fire, Part II

By Michael James

BIG CYPRESS - Early in the morning of April 10, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Seminole Agency, under the direction of Tribal member Joe Frank, was preparing to do combat with a monster.

According to firefighter Jamie McDaniel, two fires broke out in the Everglades and threatened to race on towards the Big Cypress Reservation. McDaniel, a five-year veteran of the Seminole Agency, said one started on the Miami Canal and another about 12 miles east.

The first fire went out but the second burned for a week while State of Florida Division of Forestry officials tried to contain it. The state attempted to burn out the fuel supply before the advancing fire. The fire, which would eventually consume up to 160,000 acres of saw grass, had already forced the closing of U.S. 27 by April 15. Statewide driver chaos ensued on April 16 with the closure of Interstate 75.

According to McDaniel, the state's effort to back burn had failed and the fire had jumped the canal and was threatening Miccosukee land. On April 19, Division of Forestry called Joe Frank for assistance.

Frank dispatched the only Tribal helicopter in the nation leased to the BIA for fire suppression. The chopper belongs to the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

A command post was established at the I-75 rest area at mile marker 42 where Frank became the liaison officer for the coordinated attack on the huge blaze. In addition to himself, Frank coordinated a team consisting of McDaniel, two Navajo fire jumpers, a three man contingent of Northern Cheyenne firefighters from Montana, the helicopter and its support crew.

According to McDaniel, by the time the Seminole Agency firefighters were ready to move, the fire had consumed 5,000 additional acres. An attempt to back burn a two-mile stretch along an airboat trail was going well according to McDaniel until a shift in the wind changed the fire's direction and speed. The fire was now threatening isolated Miccosukee camps in the 'Glades.

At the command center a collective decision between Frank and the other agencies to execute a large-scale burnout was reached. In addition to protecting the camps, this effort would also allow the reopening if I-75.

The decision was to burn the area ahead of the flames - about 70,000 acres. In addition, approximately 40,000 acres at the fire's origin were also to be burned. With that word, Frank dispatched the helicopter equipped with a device to drop burning magnesium on the wildfire's potential fuel. The helicopter operation began at approximately 10.30 a.m. on the morning of April 19, and continued to within 30 minutes of sundown. Pilot Dave Clark flew the daylong mission, which dispensed the fireballs. Back on the ground, agency crews were kept busy burning canal shoulders in an effort to keep another canal breach from occurring.

While agency firefighters worked throughout the day, Harry Tommie of the Big Cypress Volunteer Fire Department stood by at the fire station. Danny Tommie was dispatched to the Miccosukee Service Plaza with a pumper truck where he waited should the flames threaten. Jeanette Cypress stood by at the Big Cypress Police/Fire Station where she monitored the radio for fire information.

By the evening , April 19, the fires had been brought under control. The following day, crews concentrated their efforts on completing burnouts. Since April 21, BIA Seminole Agency firefighters have been constantly monitoring the area looking for "hot spots."

Daily patrols along the levees that bound the Big Cypress Reservation reveal a changed landscape. As the morning cool changes to midday heat and the blackened earth warms, gentle currents of air coax stubborn underground fires to life. Embers can be seen floating on the air currents.

Unburned fuel crackles like bacon frying in a pan and suddenly flames appear only to retreat back underground for the moment. A cautious Joe Frank remains vigilant and is one of the few people who haven't officially declared the danger past.

McDaniel says wildlife has benefited tremendously from the burn. He says bird life has been magnified to levels not seen in the area for years because they can now reach a food source previously covered by undergrowth. Deer are already moving back into the area to feed on the succulent new emerging sawgrass buds. In all, 160,000 Everglades acres were burned. Of that figure 19,200 acres were on Miccosukee land.

Joe Frank acknowledged the State of Florida Division of Forestry for the inter-agency cooperation. In addition he would like to thank the Red Cross for supporting the firefighters during the effort. He also thanks the Seminole Police and all of the Seminole volunteers who assisted during the effort.

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