WISTERIA ISLAND FIRE: THE BACK STORY

“By midnight Monday the flames had gotten bigger and bigger and then the cold front arrived,” says Pascal Beregevoi, “The gusts were really ferocious and all of a sudden smoke, embers, and ashes completely engulfed the boat.”  Pascal, who lives on a boat with her teenage daughter near Wisteria Island, had hoped the cold front was going to bring some rain and extinguish the fire.  Instead, with the strong winds, the fire, which had been growing on Wisteria Island for 24 hours, exploded into a fiery inferno.  Pascal and her daughter were trapped on their boat.

“I turned into a smoke refugee,” jokes Tommy Haas, another liveaboard boater from the western anchorage, “I couldn’t breathe. I had to run out of my boat.  I hopped in my dinghy and went to my friend’s boat on the east side of the island.  I stayed there most of the night and then the wind shifted again and the smoke filled up the cabin.  “I said, ‘I know where we’re going’ and we went back to my boat.”

Troy, whose boat was directly downwind of the fire, spent the night throwing buckets of water over the sails to extinguish the falling embers.   Meanwhile, a friend was texting us with “the island is especially beautiful right now.”

On the island the mood was not as jolly.  “We were stranded,” says Christopher aka “Irish”.  We fought the fire all night Sunday with buckets of water.  There were clusters of fire starting up everywhere.  One camper, “Bermuda John” was able to save only a portion of his stuff and sought refuge on the beach.

“The fire department didn’t show up until Monday morning.  They were here for about three hours.  They took our names.  We showed them our burned dinghy, but they didn’t want to give us a ride to shore.  They said an investigator would come talk to us. “

On Thursday the crew of wiped-out ‘Christmas Tree Islanders’ was finally taken to shore with minor burns on their legs and feet.  The strange part is that the boaters had seen the seven people stranded on the island but refused to help them.

“They were at the north point of the island begging for a ride off for days.  They were screaming, ‘you can have the island back,’ but nobody would stop,” says one boat owner.  ‘Giving the island back’ might have something to do with the cause of the fire.  This is where Lord of the Flies meets the guys from Deliverance. What really happened is pure movie material.  Let us try to piece it back together:

On Sunday evening just before sunset, the catamaran Sebago radioed an urgent call to the U.S. Coast Guard.  The crew of the trimaran had seen a series of red flairs shot into Wisteria Island.  They described the beginnings of a “substantial fire”.

This, at least, matches the story of the islanders.  “Some guys came with a boat,” says Irish,  ”They poured gasoline over Beverly’s dinghy and shot a flare into the motor.  Then they shot a bunch of flares toward our camp and everything went up in flames.”

Beverly and the other six homeless ‘islanders’ were stuck on the island moving around all night as the wind shifted and the fires jumped from place to place. Beverly, a frontier woman of sorts, is known for her lightening speed moves with a blade. She is the charismatic ruler of a group of ‘lost boys’ who live on Wisteria Island.

But why would anyone want to burn their boat and camp?  “They say we stole their dinghy and their outboard engine,” says Irish. Is that true? “I don’t know, maybe someone did,” says Irish. There is indeed a police report about an engine stolen and recovered on the island the day the fire broke out. That didn’t result in any arrests however.  A witness from a nearby boat described the police intervention:

“The police boat came onto the east side of the island, but they could not get off their boat.  Finally one of them managed to climb down the bow onto the beach where Beverly was with her guys.  But then Beverly’s two Pit Bulls came out from under the trees and started attacking the cop so he ran back to his boat and they left.  They didn’t ask any questions – just left.”

Reportedly, immediately following the police officers’ failure to investigate, rumors of retaliation against Beverly’s group of homeless campers began to run wild on the docks at Key West Bight.  ‘If the police refuse to intervene and protect people from thieves then the people are going to have to take care of it themselves…’  That evening is when the island went up in flames and Beverly’s boat was burned.

The battle between Beverly’s homeless campers and the boaters began a few weeks before the fire and was about an old barbeque grill.

Cartoon by Richard (Tuna) Rohe

Cartoon by Richard (Tuna) Rohe

According to boaters, Beverly’s men took the barbeque grill out of the neatly kept camp the boaters use on Saturday nights to play music.  It’s called “Kids Camp”, an area that had been made into a sanctuary (no beer allowed) when, after hurricane Wilma, many families left homeless by the storm moved onto Wisteria Island.

“I just went over there and reclaimed the barbeque,” says ‘Cowboy George’, another boater.  But Beverly says he was threatening and mean and a whole lot of beer later, that same night, the two groups had a regular brawl, which included a rusty hammer, two machetes, a frying pan and a pocketknife. Irish says he got stabbed, but when we asked to take a picture of the wound we could barely see a scab. Even though during the fight Beverly’s own Pit Bull took a chunk out of her arm, Beverly’s group has remained ‘in control’ of the island.

On Thursday morning we took a tour of the smoldering island with biological consultant Robert Ehrig, an expert in Native trees and Cactus of the Keys with over thirty-five years of experience.  Against all odds, we’re told the fire has probably done more good than harm.  It burned the pine needles and alot of the Australian pine but only roasted the live Seagrape, Black Torch, and Gumbo Limbo – all native plants – which have a good chance of recovering.  Ehrig tells us the ashes will bring a lot of nutrients to the soil and make it ready for wide-spread expansion of native plant growth during the next rainy season.

At press time the island was still burning.

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4 comments on “WISTERIA ISLAND FIRE: THE BACK STORY

  1. Fabulous article and video. I wonder if the Key West Citizen will follow up like it did with the Charles Eimber’s death on South Beach, sans video, again? I suppose with the title to Wisteria Island still tied up on Federal Court, no local, state or federal agency knows whose island it is, so why try to do anything about the fire or threats to “squatters” property, bodies and lives? Almost like the old pirate days? I wonder if the Bernsteins hope the fire destroys all the island’s vegetation? They pretty much wanted to terraform it to look like Sunset Key, which looked to me when I road a skiff around it a few years ago didn’t have one original piece of vegetation on it – all imported from mainland nurseries.

  2. Having lived on several boats off Christmas Tree in the mid 90′s I have always been happily amazed that the place has been a TAZ ( temporary autonomous zone.) It has been accommodating to the needs of a wide variety of users and stewards.
    I most remember people like Rick and Nina and Juan with his dog Bear, who lived on the island off and on during that time. I loved and trusted them. There were of course times when combative drunken people would take up residence there but they never seemed to last very long.
    I hope that the status of the island remains “undeclared” and that some day soon I can share it for the evening with family (at no one’s expense of course.)

  3. Great story and video. Booze makes people think clearly and rationally…NOT. These drunken jerks broke the unspoken rule of camping…Do not touch your fellow campers stuff.

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