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Guest column | Don Ruths

Fighting muck fires takes complex battle strategy

Last summer, many residents of Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties experienced the smoke, haze and odor irritants caused by lingering swamp muck fires. So, you ask, "What is this swamp muck fire thing?" and "Why can't you Division of Forestry folks put them out faster?"

I hope this information will help you better understand why these muck fires are a pain in the neck for both of us.

The first culprit is our prolonged drought condition. This has caused a drying of many of our wetland areas that most of you have witnessed firsthand. This exposes much of our lake, pond and swamp bottom organic layers, also known as "muck."

Muck (or peat, if you prefer) is a general term applied to a soil that is 90 percent or more rotted organic material. Some of these muck layers can vary from a few inches to several feet in thickness.

So, now our swamp and lake bottom muck layers are exposed to the drying sun, and along comes culprit No. 2: our afternoon and evening thunderstorm lightning strikes. These strikes, usually to a cypress or pine tree, will ignite some of the light vegetation fuels at the base of the tree, even in the accompanying heavy rains. This small ignition point will smolder and commence burning into the dried muck layers. Muck layers burn laterally, below surface, and in our current drought and adverse burning conditions, can spread several feet per day.

Now we have a muck fire on the loose and one of Forestry's first obstacles in suppressing it is finding it. Muck fires can burn and spread for several days below surface before they finally reach a thinner muck layer, break through to the surface and starting a detectable surface fire. Once the fire is detected, it is not unusual to find it spread across several acres, burning both below and on the soil's surface.

Suppressing these muck fires is a real challenge. First, our firefighting equipment cannot enter the lake or swamp bottom areas without becoming stuck, and it is quite dangerous to attempt this, as many times we cannot identify where the subsurface burning is occurring. Should we commit a firefighting crew to enter the burn area, the risk of breaking through the surface into an actively burning pit can be life-threatening.

Many times we are forced to take up a defensive approach where we create a containment line around the perimeter of the fire and use our equipment to ensure that the fire does not spread out from the burning swamp, lake or pond bed area. The only effective solution is water — and plenty of it. If it is feasible, at times, we bring in large commercial-grade sprinkling systems and recycle subsurface waters, occasionally construct a temporary well to provide a water source and obtain the assistance of county Fire Rescue water tanker resources.

The best solution is Mother Nature's cure: rain and more rain. It can take several weeks to finally put one of these irritating muck fires to bed, and we are there every day checking our progress and patrolling the perimeter containment lines. We expect this summer to be a repeat of the past and are already experiencing lightning-caused fires in our wetland regions; fortunately, we are dealing with only one lingering muck fire at the moment.

We hope this message provides you with a better understanding of what muck fires are and why they are so difficult to suppress. Some of you will have to face them again this summer, while others may experience one for the first time. Please be assured that your county Fire and Rescue, state land-management agencies and the Florida Division of Forestry will continue our cooperative efforts to suppress these irritating fires and put them out as soon as possible.

In the midst of such action, we often are called upon to provide suppression resources to more threatening wildland fires within our state; however, we will continue to monitor any active muck fire and return to suppression actions once these higher threats are dealt with.

If you have any questions regarding swamp fires or our suppression methods, don't hesitate to call.

Don Ruths is a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry. He can be reached at (352) 754-6777, ext. 119.

Fighting muck fires takes complex battle strategy 06/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:05pm]
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