Downed Timber After Hurricane Michael Poses Ecological Risks

Jun 5, 2019

Credit Florida State Parks

An estimated 72 million pounds of timber fell during Hurricane Michael. Much of that wood has landed on fire breaks, exacerbating wildfire conditions.  

“Most of our storied trees in those ravine systems are on the ground," said Jason Vickery, park manager of Torreya State Park. "And I would say in some areas it’s been upwards of 90% of trees in the ravine systems are still on the ground.”

Torreya occupies a three-county area in the Panhandle. The park's ravines act as a drainage system for filtered water that comes up from the ground. Vickery said one effect of all the fallen timber in the ravines is the opportunity for plant life to grow from the increase in sunlight.

“Some of these trees are really thriving, like ash magnolia," said Vickery. "That is a fairly rare tree and endemic to this area and we're seeing those popping up all over the place in some of these ravines."

But it’s not all good. Johnny Sabo, field operations bureau chief for the Florida Forest Service, said this new light can also allow invasive plant species to gain way.

The increased number of damaged trees also makes way for an influx of insects that feed on them.

Although these insects aren’t invasive, Sabo said the best way to control their populations is through prescribed burning.

But that presents another problem.

“With the amount of timber that’s on the ground, prescribed fire is harder to apply,” said Sabo.

Wildfire remains the biggest ecological threat to the forest. Torreya’s damaged ravines and natural fire breaks are now fire hazards.

“We're finding that we can no longer use these ravine systems as natural breaks," said Vickery. "Fire is going through the ravines and up the other side, and were really having to be very careful. The wildfire risk is there.”

The Florida Forest Service has started a new approach to combat wildfire this season. Officials first place suppression lines in predetermined areas, then build more fire lines around nearby communities to prevent damage to homes and businesses.