Everglades wild land firefighters are in the unique position to do something that would make urban firefighters shudder: They actually set fire to portions of the Everglades. Alumna Bleu Waters ’10 is the newest addition to the fire team that uses controlled burns to ensure new vegetation grows and to prevent the wildfires that occur in the third largest national park in the lower 48 states.
Waters and her fellow firefighting team members don their protective gear (fire retardant blouse, pants, boots, and gloves and helmet) and use what’s called a drip torch to strategically set fire to areas as large as 31,000 acres. Many times the team sets back fires in an attempt to halt the advance of a wildfire (or redirect it) by burning up fuel in its path.
Waters started her career at the Everglades National Park 18 months ago as the Greening Youth Foundation intern at the park. The foundation works with diverse, underserved and underrepresented young adults in an effort to develop and nurture enthusiastic and responsible environmental stewards. As part of her internship, Waters researched the Everglades, educated visitors, ran park tours and learned about fire safety. Now, she is the first ranger on the Everglades fire management team who also teaches fire education.
“I had no idea it was something they were going to bring up. I didn’t even know that was possible,” Waters said. “What’s cool about having all of these diverse experiences is I’ll be working in a hybrid position, which is education and fire.”
In this newly created position, she will interact with park visitors, teaching them about fires in the park.
“Bleu had a chance to do a lot of different things [at the park],” Park Ranger Sabrina Diaz said, “but what really captured her was the fire team.”
Interns are not allowed to work on the fire team. It’s simply too dangerous. Diaz and the other park rangers decided that if Waters could not fight the fires then perhaps she could work on the team to teach visitors about what the fire team does.
During her internship, Waters spent one day a week on fire training. She suited up and learned everything she could about the job.
“We kind of operate like a small village or town,” Diaz said. “If someone has an interest in doing something we put them there. So, we created a program about fire education.”
Waters, a Maryland native, came to FIU specifically to study at a school where she could have an impact, but she never imagined part of that impact would be working in the Everglades.
“I didn’t feel like a speck,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of something that was growing. I want to be a part of this change.”
She took that desire to grow and change things to the next level during her internship. Diaz and other park rangers were impressed with her ability to jump between several positions at once.
“She was always willing to take on challenges. If we asked her to accomplish a task she never failed,” Diaz said. “She was the epitome of a perfect intern.”
One of Waters’ favorite challenge was something called the Sloughsog. It’s basically an on-foot trek through the Everglades with a group of visitors. She said out of all the activities she participated in as an intern this one had the greatest impact and is among the reasons she stayed with the park.
“People would tell me that a spouse or child wouldn’t want to go because they were afraid. Those were my favorite people because they had the most to grow,” she said. “And at the end of the trip they would tell me ‘Wow! This has changed my whole perspective on the Everglades.’ That inspired me.”