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Egmont Key fire opens landscape for radar search

Seminole THPO staffers Lacee Cofer and Rachel Perash take a golf cart tour of the burned Egmont Key landscape.
                    Seminole THPO staffers Lacee Cofer and Rachel Perash take a golf cart tour of the burned Egmont Key landscape.

EGMONT KEY — Sometime in the dark, before sunrise, July 27, a vicious summer thunderstorm slapped a bolt of lightning on a tree at the south end of Egmont Key, an endangered 200-acre island just off Fort Desoto on the Gulf Coast of Pinellas County.

Florida State Park ranger Tom Watson, the island’s only full-time resident, was first to see the flames.

Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry surveys a palm stump where firefighters used chain saws to create a fire break.
Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry surveys a palm stump where firefighters used chain saws to create a fire break.

“It was about the size of a basketball court,” he told a contingent of visiting archaeologists and researchers from the Seminoles’ Tribal Historic Preservation Office as he described how quickly the fire grew upon arriving at the scene.

As firefighters from multiple agencies gathered in emergency to fight a fire that threatened the historic Egmont lighthouse, the largest brown pelican rookery in the world, a cemetery where Seminoles are buried, several houses used by Watson, the Tampa Bay boat pilots and marine biology students, the fire grew.

“Before you knew it, it became this,” Watson gasped as he waved his arm over a vast burned-out landscape, nearly 100 acres of ashen ground and blackened palmetto stumps, roasted box turtles, and cooked snakes. At least 25 fire crew members from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Forest Service fought the fire for three days using helicopters with 70-gallon water buckets and back-fire lines established by the ground crew.

Television news kept the fire constantly on the tube as it burned through the island, eerily sending billows of smoke into cloudless blue skies.

“It made me sick. It reminded me of watching the constant film of that Deepwater Horizon oil spill spewing out into the Gulf,” said Ralph Heath, of the nearby Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. “If that fire goes into the mangroves where the pelicans are roosting, that bird will go right back on the endangered species list.”

Oddly, the rain that had plagued this area daily for more than two weeks had stopped abruptly when the fire started. In Tampa, Seminole medicine man/rainmaker Bobby Henry took note of the situation and six days after the fire started, promised he would work on “making some rain. Rain will put the fire out.” The rains returned on day seven. And the fire went out. And the rains kept going another three weeks.

By the time the fire was completely out, the decades-old thick green jungle that was the interior of this island was transformed into a dramatic charcoal display.
“There was awhile there that I felt awfully lonely out here,” Watson said.

But, as Tribal Museum Director Paul Backhouse pointed out, “This was a terrible fire, but sometimes from the bad, something good emerges. Without all that underbrush and thick jungle, we can now get ground penetrating radar in here.”

Egmont1The THPO staff knew that the island’s main native vegetation can withstand this type of fire and will likely start greening and ground-covering back to jungle status in just a few months. Upon that realization, Backhouse quickly sent his THPO staff to tour Egmont on Aug. 3.

THPO Field Technician David Scheidecker began the laborious application process for permission to radar-survey the island after the discovery of two entire buildings – a radio transmitter room and a morgue that were previously covered over by trees and bushes – as well as the safe from Fort Dade, which was built out during the Spanish American War and later used to hold captured Seminoles during the Indian Wars. Ancient bottle glass was also found.

Researchers and historians have long pondered the possibility of a mass grave near the lighthouse with several marked Seminole gravesites. Records kept by the military, however, indicate dozens of Seminoles brought to the island never left and remain unaccounted for.

The use of mass or unmarked single graves was common at the forts operating during the Seminole wars. A group of deported Seminoles led by Polly Parker escaped from the steamboat Grey Cloud, which left Egmont in 1858 headed for the Mississippi River to drop off Indians on the walking Trail of Tears. Polly jumped ship when the boat stopped for fuel (wood) in St. Mark’s in the Florida panhandle. Somehow evading capture, despite a massive search of soldiers and dogs, she made it back to her family camp near Okeechobee, where she lived past 100 years old.

The fire crew was able to save all existing facilities on the island including historical structures and visitor and residential facilities. The fire did not impact the nesting and loafing pelican and other seabird colonies and never reached the extreme southern and northern ends of the island where the colonial birds nests remained intact. Gopher tortoises were unaffected, hiding in the safety of their underground burrows until it was safe to emerge.

“One of the biggest problems since the fire has been Pokemon,” said Richard Sanchez, of the Egmont Key Alliance, the non-profit spearheading efforts to protect and save the island. “Somebody put a Pokemon out there in the middle of a nesting colony of skimmers. You have people driving boats up there and walking through the nesting area scaring the birds off their eggs, which is against the law.”

He also said government officials were trying to reach the Pokemon headquarters to have the image removed.

Stan Garner, visitor services manager of Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge, praised the firefighters and their supporting agencies.

“This effort is a prime example of the importance of multi-agency collaboration and efficient communication,” Garner said. “The island’s structures and wildlife were saved thanks to the immediate response by the fire crews from St. Marks and Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuges, Florida DEP, and Florida Forest Service.”