Florida Cowbell Fire Grows to Over 8,000 Acres

Wildfire began on March 30 in national preserve


PATRICK RILEY, Naples Daily News

A brush fire that has been burning in Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Interstate 75 for more than a week has grown to more than 8,000 acres, officials said Monday.

The 8,335-acre blaze, called the Cowbell Fire, began March 30 and has charred a large area of brush 1 mile north of the Alligator Alley portion of I-75, between mile markers 56 and 64, and about 1.25 miles south of land owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The large fire is 13 percent contained and moved seven miles to the west, across the Big Cypress National Preserve, on Sunday.

The blaze continued to move west and south Monday. Although it has “moved and grown,” crews were able to keep it in check, said Susie Heisey, public information officer for the Southern Area Incident Management Gold Team.

“So far they haven’t seen the kind of movement that they’ve seen yesterday,” she said.

Due in part to record-breaking low humidity and strong winds late last week, the fire quickly spread Sunday, Heisey said.

“It just allowed the fuels to cure a little,” she said. “And then it took off.”

Mike Davis, field operations section chief trainee for the Southern Area Incident Management Gold Team, agreed.

“Yesterday, as you see, this fire blew up pretty good on us,” Davis told firefighters during a briefing Monday morning. “Made a good run to the west.”

Close to 260 firefighters and other personnel – including seven helicopters, two single-engine air tankers and 17 engines – are battling the blaze, according to a release from the Southern Area Incident Management Gold Team.

“Yesterday was a little bit of a surprise to some of us,” said Debbie Beard, incident commander trainee for the Southern Area Incident Management Gold Team, during the briefing. “A lot of the folks that live here and work here have been telling us that that day was coming.”

Still, Beard said, firefighters were successful in protecting the tribal lands and sites in the area.

“I think there’s a few of us that kind of felt like we got punched in the face yesterday,” she said. “But you know, going back to our priorities from the agency administrator, that was to make sure that we didn’t get fire in the ceremonial sites, make sure we didn’t get fire on the Seminole tribal lands and make sure we didn’t get fire in the sanctuary community. And so we’ve done that. So everything we did yesterday was successful, and everybody came home safe.”

The multiagency effort to contain the large blaze includes the National Park Service, Big Cypress National Preserve, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Florida Forest Service, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Florida Highway Patrol and Collier County Office of Emergency Management.

With expected east to northeast winds between 5 and 10 mph that could increase due to an Atlantic sea breeze in the afternoon, firefighters Monday continued to work along the eastern edge of the fire, according to the release.

Crews will also continue to safeguard private property and structures throughout the area and employ suppression tactics to protect threatened and endangered species, like the Florida panther, the Florida bonneted bat and the red-cockaded woodpecker, the release said.

In addition, portions of the preserve, including Monument Lake and Burns Lake Campgrounds and some trails, remain closed due to the Parliament Fire, which currently covers 26,471 acres and is 95 percent contained. That fire started in Big Cypress National Preserve on March 18.

“A temporary flight restriction is in place over the Cowbell Fire, and it is expected to be expanded to accommodate increased fire growth,” according to Monday’s release.

Closures in Big Cypress National Preserve:

Pink Jeep Campground

Bear Island Campground

Gator Head Campground

The road leading into the Sanctuary (except to residents)

All trails between State Road 29, L-28 Canal and north of I-75, including that section of the Florida Trail

All public lands west of the L-28 Canal, north of Alligator Alley and east of State Road 29

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