The fears of state forestry officials started to come to fruition this weekend in the Florida Panhandle when a forest fire began burning a 3-5 acre area on Saturday and by Sunday evening had left 668 acres of forest scorched.
State forestry officials say it brought to reality the wildfire threat that part of the state faces this year as a result of the large number of trees toppled there when Hurricane Michael swept through the area east of Panama City in October. The storm downed more than an estimated 70 million trees.
“The fire threat is huge,” state Forestry Director Jim Karels said a couple of weeks ago.
“When it dries out — and it will — on a windy day how do we deal with it?” Karels warned.
“A fire that we normally can catch in a couple of hours may take us half a day to just get to it because of the downed timber,”Karels said. He saiys not only would the large number of downed trees impede firefighters access to wildfires, but would also provide fuel for the fires.
The Bay County fire was 50 percent contained by Sunday afternoon and a light rain was helping firefighters battle the blaze. It threatened at least 35 structures, and forced the evacuation of 20 homes in this heavily rural area of the state.
It also provided a preview of what Nikki Fried could be in store for in her first year as Agriculture Commissioner. The Florida Division of Forestry is part of the Department of Agriculture.
“While our brave Forest Service firefighters are working to contain this massive wildfire, it remains an extremely dangerous threat,” Fried said in a Monday morning statement. “All residents in Bay County and the affected areas should pay close attention and heed warnings from emergency personnel.”
Fried and Karels are scheduled to provide an update on the fire and the overall wildfire threat during a news conference Monday morning.
“This wildfire is a tragic reminder of the importance of disaster relief and clearing the 72 million tons of downed trees left in Hurricane Michael’s wake,” Fried said in her written statement.
Karels warns they are just now entering the fire season in that part of the state. The season there runs through June and sometimes into July depending on when the state’s rainy season begins in the Summer. He said this area has always been a low wildfire risk because of land management practices and controlled burns designed to reduce the risk of wildfire.
But, Karels said Hurricane Michael has ripped a part those precautionary efforts to control wildfires here.
“Now we’ve got this tremendous fuel load and it’s a fuel bed that is continuous,” the state’s chief forester said. “And it’s not broken up. It continuous.”
“If the weather lines up it could potentially be catastrophic,” Karels warns.
The timber industry is one of the area’s largest employers in this part of the state and Michael cut a 40 mile swath of destruction right through the center of it, running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border. There’s another 25 miles on either side of the swaths where the trees were badly damaged.
The state and timber industry estimates it would take more than 2.5 million log trucks to remove all of the downed trees, most of which Karels says will remain on the ground this wildfire season.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Karels said.
This weekend’s fire served as a reminder of the work that needs to be done to remove the debris that could possibly fuel what Karels says could be potentially catastrophic wildfires in the area still suffering from the impacts of Hurricane Michael.