Big Reptiles, Alien Trees Hamper Everglades Fire Fight

May 22, 2008

Firefighters in Florida's Everglades National Park are encountering large, dangerous reptiles and poisonous trees as they battle a fire that has consumed about 39,000 acres (16,000 hectares) since last week.

Fighting the Mustang Corners blaze in the remote, trackless Everglades has "posed a lot of challenges," said Mike Dueitt, a firefighter from Florence, Mississippi.

"We're seeing everything from boa constrictors and pythons to iguanas and a few alligators."

(Related: "Invasive Pythons Squeezing Florida Everglades" [October 28, 2005].)

When they cross paths with a large reptile, firefighters "do the best we can to work around it and move on, and wait until it clears the area before we go in," Dueitt said.

Poisonwood trees, whose effect Dueitt described as "poison ivy on steroids," also pose a hazard.

At the same time crews are struggling to keep the flames away from stands of invasive melaleuca trees, which can grow more than 60 feet (18 meters) tall.

"Melaleuca does create a challenge because of the very flammable, papery bark that it has," said David Hallac, chief biologist for Everglades National Park.

Firefighters fear that melaleuca stands near the park's northeastern boundary could help the fire spread into the area near Fort Lauderdale and Miami, where about six million people live.

Helped by Fire

The melaleuca tree, sometimes called the paperbark tree, is native to Australia.

The tree absorbs enormous quantities of water and was introduced into the Everglades in the early 20th century to help drain the vast region for development.

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