CAPE CORAL, Fla. — As we transition from hurricane season to our dry season and ultimately our fire season, Southwest Florida is forecasted to see above-normal significant fire potential by the National Interagency Fire Center.
That above-normal potential can be traced back to Hurricane Ian after the storm littered the region with dead trees and debris as well as salt-cured fuel from Ian’s storm surge.
Meteorologist Andrew Shipley, a wildfire expert in his own right, dug into the lessons learned from Hurricane Michael in 2018 and how they could be applied in the wake of now Hurricane Ian.
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, the Florida Panhandle experienced catastrophic impacts on timber. According to the Florida Forest Service, parts of the Panhandle saw over 100 tons of burnable material per acre, when a typical forest’s fuel load is less than 10 tons per acre. That increased fuel loading has not increased fire potential, it has also increased fire intensity. That was seen firsthand during last spring's 34,000-acre Chipola Complex Fire.
“That additional fuels on the ground because of the hurricane is what is driving that increase in fire behavior. That increase in fire behavior means those fires, those wildfires are harder to manage. They are harder to control, they are harder to put out. It takes more time, takes more people, and more equipment. And at the same time, it puts those first responders at increased personal risk.”
Dr. David Godwin is a fire ecologist and the director of the Southern Fire Exchange with the University of Florida and has been studying Michael's impacts on wildfires. One observation that was made in wake of the storm was the non-natural fuels found in burn areas.
“All of a sudden, they are finding propane tanks and tires and gas tanks and refrigerators and boats. All these things that had been washed into their stands and are now making fire management and prescribed fire management, in those cases, much more complicated and actually dangerous.”
Now let's head several hundred miles south to Southwest Florida. Hurricane Ian’s historic surge and post-flooding littered the region with debris swept into mangroves, wetlands, and forests. That is in addition to hundreds of acres of damaged tree stands, windblown debris, and salt-cured fuels like on Sanibel Island.
“The fuel loading in these areas has quite increased. And the difficulty in accessing these areas has also increased.”
Michael Harris is a fire mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Service Caloosahatchee Division and has been fighting wildfires for years. He says unlike what he saw from tropical systems in the past, including Irma in 2017.
“A lot more blow down with this one. A lot higher fuel loading.”
And that fuel loading, like seen in the Panhandle after Michael, will be impacting Southwest Florida for not just this fire season, but likely the next several.
“The upcoming dry season, the leaves and small twigs and stuff like that and limbs are going to contribute the increased fire activity, potential increased fire activity, the next two years after that, your second and third year the large trees will be a component of that and will be drying out. And they could also add to the potential of an increased fire potential as well.”
And with this added fuel, it is not so simple to remove. One option would be to use hand crews and machinery to clear debris, but that also would require a significant amount of personnel and time. The option is using prescribed fire, comes with its own set of difficulties, especially when it comes to population density of Southwest Florida.
“It does make it challenging to smoke management, and access, also you are dealing with a fire that is coming right up against houses and homes and condominiums and small residential areas.”
That said Harris is advising the public to clean up their property of debris left behind from Hurricane Ian and clean out gutters and soffits of leaf litter before we get into our fire season. Fire season in Southwest Florida typically runs from February to May, as we move through the driest months and transition to seeing the return on