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SWFL-GWCC South Florida’s Cowbell fire grows rapidly (H. Michael Mogil, CCM, CBM, NWA-DS*)

Discovered on Mar. 30, a relatively small brush fire in South Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve (eastern Collier County) grew slowly during the following week. By Apr. 8, the Cow Bell fire (so named, because it is near the Cow Bell Strand within the Big Cypress National Park – Fig. 1) had consumed roughly 600 acres. On Sun., Apr. 9, thanks to an increase in easterly winds (and continued dry weather), the blaze exploded. By late Sunday, the blaze had consumed more than 8,000 acres. For comparison, this fire is slightly larger than the burned acreage from the Picayune Strand Fire (western Collier County) back in early- to mid-March. Fig. 2 shows the smoke plume from just north of the Cow Bell fire area.

During much of its lifetime, the fire has been moving westward across “Alligator Alley,” mostly parallel to Interstate Highway (I-75). Campgrounds in the Bear Island area, within the Preserve, are being evacuated. Due to the rapid spread of the fire, fire-fighting crews have had to reassess possible containment lines for stopping the fire’s westward movement.

Maximum smoke impacts were expected closest to the fire, with smoke also impacting I-75 between mile markers 55 through 80. On the evenings of Apr. 9 and 10, around sunset, smoke smell permeated the air in parts of North Naples (more than 50 miles from the fire). Smoke from the fire was also evident in the skies over North Naples. Fig. 3 shows the smoke plume as shown on the NWS Miami radar during mid-afternoon on Apr. 9.

Lacking any rainfall for the foreseeable future, and given the pineland and cypress habitat that is ablaze, the hundreds of fire-fighters engaged in battling the fire will have their hands full. Fortunately, there are only a few structures anywhere near the fire area, at this time.

Officials have urged all drivers on I-75 to use extreme caution and to check road conditions before starting travel across the “Alley.” The highest likelihood for experiencing roadway visibility restrictions due to smoke will be between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. daily. This is the time window during which an inversion, a low-level temperature pattern with warmer air overlying cooler air, is most likely to trap smoke near the ground.

Big Cypress National Preserve officials have instituted the following closures:

  • Gator Head Campground
  • Bear Island Campground
  • Jeep Campground
  • The road leading into the Sanctuary except to residents
  • All trails between state road 29 and L-28 Canal including the Florida Trail
  • All public lands west of the L-28 Canal
  • All public lands east of state road 29
  • All public lands south of the Preserve boundary
  • All public lands north of Alligator Alley

In addition, a temporary flight restriction has been placed over the Cowbell Fire (ground level to 3,000 feet mean sea level) to provide a safe environment for fire-fighting aviation operations. In addition to 17 fire engines, at least seven helicopters and two water tanker aircraft are involved in firefighting efforts. The area will likely be expanded to accommodate increased fire growth.

© 2017 H. Michael Mogil

Originally posted 4/11/17

* The National Weather Association Digital Seal (NWA-DS) is awarded to individuals who pass stringent meteorological testing and evaluation of written weather content. H. Michael Mogil was awarded the second such seal and is a strong advocate for its use by weather bloggers.