600-acre Florida Panhandle wildfire could be sign of things to come

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A more than 600-acre wildfire in Bay County is a preview of the coming months as millions of tons of downed trees remain strewn across parts of Northwest Florida after Hurricane Michael, the state’s agriculture commissioner warned Monday.

“Unfortunately, we know this is just one of many to come during the dry season,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said while giving a brief update on the fire..

The blaze near the city of Callaway required homes to be evacuated and was about 50 percent contained by Monday morning. It also highlights the need for state and federal funding for Hurricane Michael recovery, Fried said.

“Other parts of our country have seen (federal) disaster packages within weeks after a disaster,” Fried, appearing at Sandy Creek Airpark in Panama City, said. “And now almost six months later we are still waiting. This is absolutely unacceptable.”

This weekend’s blaze, if it occurred a year ago, may have been limited to three to five acres, she said. But like many parts of the heavily rural region where Hurricane Michael caused massive damage in October, the downed trees have caused problems for firefighters to gain access, along with providing fuel for the fire.

Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach as a Category 4 hurricane and roared through an area that is reliant on the timber industry. Most of the 72 million tons of downed trees remain on the ground between the Gulf Coast and the Georgia border.

“Under normal conditions it would have been a few hours and a few acres,” Fried said. “But because of the fact of all the timber on the ground and because the weather conditions, it escalated to be the 600-plus (acres) because of all the fuel on the ground and the inability to get there.”

RELATED: Florida timber farmers face years of replanting, recovery after Hurricane Michael

Fried has requested $39 million from state lawmakers for debris removal, reforestation and new firefighting equipment.

The House has offered at least $7.5 million for new wildfire protection equipment in its budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1, while the Senate budget proposal is at about $4 million for the equipment.

The Senate budget proposal also features $220 million for hurricane recovery, which would bring the state response to the storm to $1.8 billion. House and Senate leaders will negotiate a final budget during the next month.

The threat of wildfires in the region hit by the hurricane is considered 10 times higher than normal, and Florida State Forester Jim Karels said the conditions are starting to get drier.

“We’re all standing here in winter coats and cold conditions and we’re talking about wildfires, where in Florida when we’re talking about wildfires it’s usually 90 degrees, a lot of heat and we’re all suffering from heat and humidity,” Karels said Monday. “These conditions out there yesterday were dry, but they weren’t drought dry. Actually, the soils are quite wet yet. Our dry conditions here start now and go into June and sometimes into July.”

The fire over the weekend required 20 homes to be evacuated, but no structural damage had been attributed to this fire, Karels said.

Last month, Karels warned Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the Florida Cabinet that the Panhandle faces a threat that could top the recent California wildfires.

“Catastrophic fire in these kinds of events mean big aircraft that I’ve got to bring in under federal contract,” Karels said on March 12. “You could see fires that are running $10 (million) to $100 million, similar to the West, if we don’t get rid of the debris.”

The entire debris total from Michael is considered 10 times the amount left by Hurricane Irma, which hit far more areas of the state in September 2017.

Michael devastated the region’s timber industry, which accounted for $1.3 billion of the storm’s $1.5 billion in agriculture damage.

The Department of Environmental Protection has estimated that removing trees from state waterways has already cost the state $19.4 million, a dent in the estimated $167 million needed to fully clear the waters. Another $8.6 million has been spent on recovery activities at state parks, where the restoration work is projected at $55 million. State park cleanup efforts after Irma and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 reached a combined $40 million.