The Burning of Lake Okeechobee

The smell of smoke hung in the air of Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties Friday, the result of the state's first strike against a killer grass that has choked the life out of Lake Okeechobee.

Helicopters dropped pingpong balls filled with "napalm-like" chemicals Friday morning, bombing about 21,000 acres of dried lake bed on the lake's northwest shore, according to Pat Gleason, a board member of the South Florida Water Management District.

Their target: About 16,000 acres of torpedo grass, a nuisance plant that grows so densely birds can't land in it and fish can't swim through it.

"Our motto has become: `Damn the torpedo grass, full steam ahead,' " Gleason said. The bombing of the nuisance plants and Australian melaleuca is the first step to restore Lake Okeechobee.

Conditions for an air raid were perfect. Water levels were low. Frost and record-breaking cold temperatures this week killed much of the vegetation, creating a tremendous amount of fuel.

The burn was planned by the water management district, the state's Division of Forestry, Department of Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Melissa Barletto, a water management district spokeswoman, later apologized for the smoke and ash, which stretched all the way to the Bahamas and was clearly visible on satellite images.

"It was an unforeseen event," Barletto said. "We regret that there was a smoke and ash problem.

No further burning would take place over the weekend.