Dried-out portions of Lake Okeechobee burned Wednesday as wildfires spread across exposed lake bed.
Fires suspected to have started with a lightening strike Tuesday night spread through dried-out marshes along the northwestern portions of the lake, according to the Florida Forest Service.
What started as a 10-acre fire about 6 p.m. Tuesday spread to 400 acres by Wednesday afternoon. The fire has the potential to grow to 12,000 acres, according to the Florida Forest Service.
To stop the fire from spreading and smoldering for weeks, firefighters Wednesday set controlled burns from the ground and dropped chemical-injected ping pong balls from a helicopter to start more fires intended to burn up remaining vegetation.
"It’s better just to speed it up," said Melissa Yunas, of the Florida Forest Service. "The winds are working in our favor."
Smoke from the wildfires has caused a nuisance for homes in Glades and Okeechobee County, but so far the fire has not threatened to jump over the lake’s dike, Yunas said.
It’s the first time since 2008 that wildfires have burned portions of the lake usually covered by water.
The strains of drought, worsened by past water management decisions, led to the low water levels that left the lake bed exposed.
Aside from providing vital animal habitat, Lake Okeechobee serves as South Florida’s primary back-up water supply.
Lake water levels have yet to rebound from a record-setting October-to-June dry stretch as well as decisions before the drought to drain hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water out to sea because of flood concerns.
Lake Okeechobee on Wednesday was 10.95 feet above sea level. That’s more than three feet below normal. This time last year, the lake was 14.09 feet.
The Army Corps of Engineers tries to keep lake levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet. The corps, with input from the South Florida Water Management District, controls lake releases.
Safety concerns about the lake’s 70-year-old, earthen dike prompted the corps to release more than 300 billion gallons of lake water out to sea last year.
Losing that lake water amplified the effects of the drought that stretched from October to June.
Steady rains since July have boosted water supplies throughout South Florida, but so far have not been enough to get Lake Okeechobee back to normal.
Water managers worry that without a tropical storm or otherwise above-average rainfall, lake levels will remain below normal heading into the next winter-to-spring dry season.
Past wildfires on Lake Okeechobee lake bed typically occurred early in the summer, according to state officials. By September, water levels would normally be too high to allow wildfires.
"This is a reminder we need continued rainfall through the remainder of the wet season to replenish our water resources. There are likely only a few weeks left of traditional summer rainfall before the transition into the dry season," said Susan Sylvester, who heads water control operations for the South Florida Water Management District.
Wildfires are a natural part of Florida’s ecosystem, burning off undergrowth and allowing new vegetation to emerge.
Wildlife habitat rimming the lake has suffered from receding water lines. The endangered Everglades snail kite relies on the Lake Okeechobee’s marshes for feeding and nesting.