EXCLUSIVE: First look at charred landscape from Egmont Key fire, a third of the island burned

Firefighters describe challenges to fight the fire
Posted at 3:01 PM, Jul 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-29 16:51:37-04

Cabbage Palms litter the landscape their tops practically blown off from a wildfire that exploded on the island Tuesday morning.

Crews rushing in by boat to contain the blaze worked for nearly 48 hours straight in those first desperate hours to protect historical structures, a bird sanctuary, and the entire island itself which his a national wildlife refuge.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska was the only local news reporter to talk with firefighters this morning as Egmont Key State Park reopened to the public.

“I think we did a good job and nobody was hurt,” Joshua Havird with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. 

Havird got on the island mid-morning on Tuesday.  He said the first reports was that the fire was the size of a basketball court.  But, with the heating of the day and a lot of dry fuel on the ground it didn’t take long for it to get out of control.

Battling the fire with a heat index of more than a 100 was just as much a danger to crews as the fire consuming the landscape.

“It's really hot and you add a little fire and smoke it wears on you,” Havird said. 

And then there was the difficulty getting resources to the remote island.

“The logistics of getting people and supplies, and of course safety you are that much further from an ambulance if something were to happen,” Havird said.  

Once helicopters dropped thousands of gallons of water on the fire Havird said they were in a position to wait until the winds were more favorable to light back burns and start boxing the fire in.

“To burn the fire into itself, and to push it to the beach.  Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are pretty good fire breaks,” Havird said.

Havird was the last of three firefighters left on the island Friday. The park service is asking that park goers stay on paved trails and avoid going into the charred landscape. There are still hotspots burning but the fire is 100 percent contained.  

Crews with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Forest Service, and members of Tampa Fire all played a key role in containing the blaze. Tortoises were out eating grass as we walked through the burnt out landscape. There were some dead box turtles. At some point, wildlife biologists will be on the island to asses the impact the fire had on wildlife on the island.

No historic structures or the bird sanctuary on the southern portion of the island were damaged.