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1st Major Wildfire Since Michael Sparks In Panhandle, Officials Worry It's 'Just The Beginning'

An infographic showing the number of active wildfires in the state
Florida Forest Service

North Florida is facing an increased risk of wildfires after Hurricane Michael, and the first major one has broken out in Bay County.  The fire is 50 percent contained, but officials worry with all the downed trees on the ground, more frequent and severe wildfires could be on the way.

The irony, says Bay County Incident Commander Bryce Thomas, is that most of the debris on the ground will be gotten rid of through burning, "but it’s got to be burned correctly by professionals…people need to be so, so careful right now.” 

Over the weekend, the Allenton Fire broke out, scorching more than 650 acres of land in Bay County. It’s 50% contained. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says, what would have been a small fire grew quickly because of both weather conditions and the amount of “fuel” on the ground.

“Under the normal conditions it would have been a few hours and a few acres," she said during a press conference with reporters Monday in Bay County.

"But because all the timber on the ground and the weather conditions, [that's] why it escalated. And more importantly, [there is] an inability to get there because we still have road access issues. It’s harder for the forest services and fire [services] to get there to access the area and create a perminiter zone, [and] that makes it more dangerous to fight the fire and a lot of it will have to be done by air.”

For months there have been warnings about the increased risk of wildfires following Hurricane Michael. The October 10th storm damaged nearly three million acres of land, according to the Florida Forest Service.  Most of what the agency deemed as catastrophic damage occurred in Bay, Calhoun and Gulf Counties.

Cleaning up all those downed trees has been slow going, despite multiple agencies stepping in to assist. It’s simply too much land to cover, and that’s created a giant, three-million acre fire hazard -- about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

“The department has asked for $39 millionfrom our state lawmakers for debris removal, reforestation, fire equipment and wildfire mitigation," says Fried. "We’ve also asked Congress to do their jobs and pass disaster relief now. Other parts of the county have seen disaster relief within weeks. We’re six months and still waiting. This is unacceptable.”

There have been 61 wildfires in the Panhandle area hit by Hurricane Michael since the storm. Most have been small and confined to a dozen acres or less. Another 11, including the current one are presently active. State forester Jim Karels worries, if the state can’t get the trees off the ground, worse could be on the way.

“This is just the beginning," he says. "With the fuel on the ground, the inability to access those areas with 100 tons per acre on the ground that’s flammable… it’s going to take an effort…federal, state and local working together to make sure we don’t have another catastrophe in the panhandle.” 

Karels says conditions were dry, but not that dry. In fact, the ground was wet. He and others worry what happens when the state enters the dry season which is starting now and extends through late July. 

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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