Fire on Shell Key left to keep burning

The Coast Guard can't fight a fire on land, and land-based firefighters can't reach the island.

Published May 24, 2007

A fire on environmentally sensitive Shell Key late Wednesday was left burning because no agency had the resources to put it out.

Initial reports to the U.S. Coast Guard blamed the fire on visitors to the island who started a campfire.

No one was injured, but as flames rose from the island so did concern for wildlife.

The 180-acre Shell Key, which spans about 2.5 miles, serves in part as a nesting ground for birds.

The Coast Guard received a call about the fire at 9:20 p.m. Officers checked the island to ensure that people were safe, but they could do little about the fire.

"We don't have the proper equipment to fight a fire on land," said Pfc. Daniel Butierries.

And Lt. Ronnie Nifong of St. Pete Beach Fire Rescue lamented that "we can't get out there." No bridges lead to the island.

The fire comes at a time of growing, angry debate over use of the island as a bird habitat or a playground for beachgoers.

Environmentalists and conservationists have been pressing county officials for tougher restrictions for use of the island.

They want a ban on overnight camping, alcohol and pets because they say the island has become a public bathroom.

"A lot of people do camp there," Butierries said. "It's kind of a known party spot."

Moreover, environmentalists say the bird population has been declining, and campers are further endangering the wildlife.

The island is part of Shell Key Preserve, which is near Fort De Soto and Tierra Verde.

The state owns a large portion of the island, which was acquired in 1845 when Florida became a state.

Butierries said the blaze could be beneficial, just as controlled burns help firefighters control undergrowth and prevent large, uncontrollable fires.

Late Wednesday, the fire continued to burn, though witnesses said the flames appeared to be dying down.