How a hurricane fueled wildfires in the Florida Panhandle

The wildfires that broke out in the Florida Panhandle in early March 2022 were the nightmare fire managers had feared since the day Hurricane Michael flattened millions of trees there in 2018. It may sound strange – hurricanes help fuel wildfires. But Michael’s 160 mph winds left tangles of dead trees in their wake ready to burn.

We asked University of Florida fire ecologist David Godwin, co-director of the Southern Fire Exchange, to explain the role the hurricane played in the wildfires that have forced over 1,000 people to flee their homes.

What’s Driving Florida Wildfires So Early in the Year?

March is early for big fires in this part of Florida. We are not in extreme drought but the weather has been warm and dry and there is a lot of fuel on the ground in this area that can burn.

When Hurricane Michael rolled through, it had disastrous effects on timber in the area. The hurricane threw most of the standing trees into a mess that piled up on the ground.

Typically, a forest’s fuel load – the total mass of combustible material on a site – is less than 10 tons per acre. After Hurricane Michael, surveys in parts of the Panhandle indicated over 100 tons per acre. That’s off the charts. All involved saw that this storm had tremendous potential to impact wildfire activity for years to come.

The Florida Forest Service used satellites to map the wood damage in the panhandle.
Florida Forest Service

Most fires in the region only burn ground cover and understory vegetation. Here almost all of the forest is now down – branches and trunks that would not normally be available to the fire are dead, dry and ready to burn.

In the years since the hurricane, as tree canopies have disappeared and more sunlight reaches the forest floor, additional vegetation has also grown, contributing additional fuel. All of these fuels result in increased burning behavior, which means more intense fires with longer flame lengths and additional spotting caused by raised embers igniting new areas.

How does all that debris affect firefighting?

The tangle of trunks and branches makes these areas difficult to access and dangerous for fighting a wildfire.

It means you climb over, under and around tree trunks. Vehicles cannot enter. Firefighters often cannot use their typical bulldozers to set fire lines.

The heavy fuels can burn for a long time and host sustained fires that flare up again later. The heavy fuels are harder to extinguish and can create smoke that can endanger roads and affect communities.

Two photos taken in the same month in different years show large areas of fallen trees that once emerged as tree canopies after Hurricane Michael.
Two images of a section of Calhoun County, Fla. about 40 miles offshore show the damage after Hurricane Michael.
Forwarn/USDA Forest Service

Read more: The risk of “cascading” natural disasters is increasing

Why weren’t the trees removed?

People may wonder why the government didn’t clean up the damaged trees, but about 80% of the areas hard hit by Hurricane Michael were on private property. This limits the possibilities of the officials.

Much of this land is timber investment land, and there is no crop insurance for trees, so people may not have the money to hire a contractor to clean up the dead trees. It is a very rural region and in many places low-income. The Florida Forest Service has been very vocal in trying to support private landowners to manage fallen trees, for the reason we’re seeing now.

I was recently at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida and the difference funding can make was evident. The base was hit almost directly by the hurricane, and the surrounding trees were decimated. But because the Air Force had access to funds, within a year they cleared dead trees and shredded the material for bioenergy.

Trees are removed, in the background are broken trees that were once tall pines.
Tyndall Air Force Base workers remove trees that were downed and blown down by Hurricane Michael.
David Godwin/Southern Fire Exchange, CC BY-ND

The base is now quickly on its way to replanting longleaf pines. Longleaf pines were once the dominant pines of the South, but they were felled when lumber barons came through. While industrial forestry has been more successful with Slash Pines and Loblolly Pines, Longleaf Pines are better at withstanding hurricanes, wildfires, and disease.

Research after Hurricane Katrina showed that longleaf pines were more resilient in the face of hurricane winds and suffered significantly less damage. They are also more pest resistant and are a key species to the ecosystem.

Rain that began March 9 helped firefighters, but the forecast thereafter was to bring dry, windy conditions that could reignite fires.

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About Mike Crayton

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