Flood and fire adapted

Not just a watershed and not just fire adapted, every square inch of the swamp is flood AND fire adapted. So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp. Cypress domes | Strands and sloughsSwamp mosaic?Flood and fire | Marl Prairies | UplandsBotany | Alligators and more | Life cycle of a pond apple | mangroves

flood and fire

Water and fire
On the same day

If you ask the swamp point blank:

“What’s your preference — water or fire?”

Water in the swamp

Fire in the swamp

Not that the swamp’s greedy, but it will say “both.” The swamp, you see, is a flood and fire adapted ecosystem. Every square inch of flora and fauna depends on a goldilocks dosage and return interval of flood and fire on the landscape. Just as important is the balance between the two. Preferred patchy burns result when the water table is close to the surface and water is still ponding in the lowest spots. And water needs fire to open up foraging grounds for wading birds to opportunistically exploit. Getting the fire right means getting the water right and getting the fire and water right means getting the ecosystem right.

Song: Three Jacks
Ode to the godfather of fire safety

You can’t control everything …

During a wildfire.

Stay on after the song to hear an interview with Bobby Angel

But you can hedge your bets on making it home safely, and making sure others make it home the same way. The trick? There is no trick. It’s called experience and good training, and people with experience giving good advice and relaying lessons learned to the new guard moving up the ranks. There’s a saying that an thorn of experience is worth a wilderness of warning. Multiply that by a thousand on the fire line. And just when things are looking up, conditions can worsen quickly, requiring a fire fighter to recalibrate. That doesn’t mean you give up, but it does mean you don’t bet all your chips. Or to quote the song: “With Three Jacks you stay, when you’re playing cards … with your life.”

About this song: I wrote it as a farewell song to wildland firefighter extraordinaire Jack Finley when he left Big Cypress National Preserve way back in 1999, or maybe it was 2000. Jack may have left, but his tradition of safety lives on.

Mythical Big Cypress

Big Cypress Watershed
Or is the term "mosaic" a better descriptor?

Animated cross section of the rise and fall of the water table in Big Cypress National Preserve
Swamp water cycle in motion

In the modern era, we’ve come to know the Big Cypress as a watershed. But what if I were to tell you, use of that term for the Big Cypress is as new as the preserve? Yes, that’s right, the day Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974, it was dubbed a watershed – it’s own watershed, a watershed separate from the Everglades and the Lake – and has been thought of in that pristine, almost utopian way, ever since. But the truth is the Big Cypress is only a watershed because its original “other sources” of water were drained away, or diverted.

Listen to Audio Introduction

What were those sources? Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades definitely flowed into the swamp. If you don’t believe me, just read the Buckingham Report from 1848. And prior to the destruction of the Ft. Thompson Falls and drainage of the Upper Caloosahatchee Basin (Lake Flirt, Lake Bonnet and Lake Hicpochee), the swamp was fed water through groundwater seeps from the Immokalee Rise.

Before, Current and Future Restored Maps of the Big Cypress Swamp
The rainfed swamp we know today was once fed by upstream water sources

So yes, in a way the Big Cypress we know today is a rainfall-sustained ruins of a pre-drainage cathedral of of headwater flows, now largely collapsed (by drainage). That doesn’t make the swamp any less special. In fact it makes it more interesting than we knew. And it also points to our need to steward water. The sky provides the Big Cypress with a bounty of water. But it needs help, our help, to make sure its clean, connected to its remnant headwaters where possible, and help it spread out.

And the swamp needs fire, too. Every square inch of flora and fauna in the swamp depends on a regular return interval and dosage of flood and fire. Those are the two forces that give the swamp its distinctive mosaic of habitats. The cypress may look “old as the hills” but they are actually holes — although it is incorrect to call it a homogenous swamp.

More correctly stated, it’s a malleable swampy mosaic that’s semi-fixed in time and space. Or as we like to say around here:

So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.

flood and fire

Rise and fall (of flood and fire)
And why fire and water are the swamp's best friends

A very wise swamp rat once said:

“So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.”

Can you see the decadal shift in the swamp’s seasonal distribution of wildfire? Green are prescribed fires, red are arson and yellow lightning strikes.

And probably nothing explains how fire has changed …

In recent decades than the graph shown above.

Or check out the full presentation in the video below.

A brief history of flood and fire in the swamp

Everyone is always ready to blame the water …

For every Everglades woe.

But let’s not forget that fire is the flip side of the same coin.

A healthy swamp depends on getting both right.