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A year later, Egmont Key wildfire considered a 'good thing'

By Ben Montgomery
Charred sabal palms line the west beach on Egmont Key. A July 2016 fire, caused by lightning, burned through about 88 acres but didn’t damage any historic structures.


The effects of a natural fire that charred a quarter of Egmont Key are still noticeable a year later, but bright green undergrowth has already replaced the blackened detritus.

Scorched sabal palms are plentiful on the interior 88 acres affected by the fire, but many tourists who stick to the beaches of the 328-acre island in the mouth of Tampa Bay don't even notice.

"It amounted to a good thing," said park ranger Tom Watson, who discovered the fire early one morning in July 2016. "Nothing was harmed, nothing was hurt. It helped clean out years and years and years of brush."

The lightning-caused fire didn't damage any historic structures. It did kill some box turtles, but not one gopher tortoise or bird, he said. The tortoises burrow underground when threatened by fire and other animals join them in the safety of their burrows.

"The carnage was minimal," Watson said. "The grass came back within two weeks of the fire."

He said rangers, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection, are looking for the right time to conduct a needed prescribed burn on the island to clear the rest of the brush without endangering people or wildlife.

The island, which draws more than 200,000 visitors a year, is accessible by private boat and by ferry from Fort De Soto Park.