Biggest fires in 2 decades still burning in Big Cypress Preserve 5-25-07

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) - The biggest fires in 26 years in the Big Cypress National Preserve have consumed 76 square miles and are still burning three weeks after being sparked by lightning strikes, officials said.

More than 200 firefighters and support personnel from the National Park Service as well as from federal, state, county and tribal land management agencies are still fighting two separate blazes in the 1,125-square-mile preserve in southwest Florida east of Naples.

“With air support and water drops, we'll continue to gnaw away on it and slow it down,” U.S. Forestry Service spokesman Chris Worth said. “The goal is to keep both of those fires within the preserve.”

Three smaller fires in the preserve have been contained and died down.

One of the remaining fires is burning near some homes, but no structures have been damaged so far, Worth said.

The fire actually is expected to be good for the ecosystem of the preserve.

“Most of the fire is just creeping through the understory, and it's going to be very beneficial to that area,” preserve biologist Deborah Jansen said.

Once the fire is out and the thick, ground-hugging brush is gone, deer, turkey and rabbits likely will return to feast on the new vegetation, Jansen said. With the flames remaining low to the ground, only a few trees are catching on fire. That should shorten the rejuvenation process by a few decades.