While the threat of wildfires continues to rise in the state of Florida, foresters in the hurricane-devastated Panhandle are still waiting for disaster aid to help them remove millions of felled trees that pose a fire hazard across 2.8 million acres in the region.
Thirteen months ago, Hurricane Michael destroyed 500 million trees in an 11-county area of north Florida, says Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels. The once-valuable timber now represents little more than combustible debris that already has fueled fires on nearly 4,200 acres.
The risk of wildfire is 10 times greater than normal in the worst-hit counties and will remain high for at least five years, Karels told the Florida Senate Committee on Agriculture this week. There are 233 communities in the affected area. Senators on the committee said the situation is dangerous and that relief is urgently needed.
“The longer we wait, the more threat there is for fires,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat whose district includes Calhoun and Gulf counties, both with catastrophic damage. Bay and Jackson counties also had catastrophic damage, and there were heavy losses in parts of seven neighboring counties, as well as parts of Georgia and Alabama.
The job of fighting fires in the region is tougher than ever, he said, because the severe damage makes many areas impenetrable. Forestry crews have cleared nearly 1,100 miles of roads and fire breaks, he said, but they need more heavy equipment on the ground, more helicopters in the air and more personnel in the field.
Karels said some relief for agriculture – including wiped-out cotton and peanut crops – is on the way. In June, nine months after Hurricane Michael struck, Congress approved a disaster-relief package that includes $3.5 billion to states impacted by natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. Karels said he hopes to learn next week whether Florida will receive $600 million in block grants as requested for forestry recovery. The funds would help cover timber-production losses and costs of reforestation.