Wildfire could help restore Lake Okeechobee's drought-strained wildlife habitat
Wildfires burning across Lake Okeechobee's exposed lake bed could help burn away dried-out undergrowth and clear the way for new aquatic plants that provide wildlife habitat. (Melissa Yunas, Florida Forest Service)
While it may seem weird to see fire spreading across land usually covered by water, wildfires are a natural part of Florida’s ecosystem, Audubon of Florida scientist Paul Gray said Thursday.
Lingering low water levels dried out aquatic plants in the normally soggy marshes along the northwestern and southwestern portions of the lake.
The fire can burn away the dried up plants as well as invading ragweed, torpedo grass and other out-of-place plants that spread to the lake bed due to dry conditions, Gray said.
That helps clear the way when the water returns for sawgrass, pickerelweed and other aquatic plants that provide wildlife habitat.
"Fires really are good for the lake," said Gray, who monitors Lake Okeechobee conditions for Audubon.
A small fire suspected to have started from a lightening strike Tuesday evening was expected to grow to as many as 12,000 acres, with firefighters trying to keep it from spreading to other portions of the lake or jumping the levee.
The fire in the lake’s Indian Prairie area, at the northeastern portion of the lake.
Fire may be natural for the lake, but it’s not normal this late in the summer.
Lake Okeechobee water levels remain more than three feet below normal. The lake’s drought-induced decline this year was amplified by decisions last year by the Army Corps of Engineers to drain more than 300 billion gallons of water from the lake.
Safety concerns about the lake’s 70-year-old dike has the corps keeping lake levels lower than normal, which can worsen the effects of droughts.
In addition to providing vital animal habitat, Lake Okeechobee also serves as South Florida’s primary back-up water supply.
The South Florida Water Management District directs lake water to South Florida sugar cane fields and other farms and can use lake water to bolster some community drinking water supplies.
Those competing demands for lake water combined with the drought this year dropped the lake to its lowest point since 2008.
While summer rains have the lake rising again, about 90 percent of the marshes rimming the lake still remain dried out, Gray said.
Lingering low water levels likely resulted in “mass losses” of snakes, turtles, frogs and other wildlife that can’t survive a prolonged dry-out, Gray said.
The endangered Everglades snail kite relies on Lake Okeechobee to feed and reproduce. In May, receding water lines were to blame for adult snail kites abandoning 10 nests that remained, Gray said.
"The adults can leave the lake, but the babies can’t," Gray said. "When they do, they don’t know where to go."
Fires clearing the way for new aquatic plants should help, once the waters return.
But water managers project that without above-average summer rainfall, lake levels will remain below normal heading into the next winter-to-spring dry season.
"It’s frustrating," Gray said. "The water hasn’t come back."