Tree farmers and the state are saying parts of North Florida have an increased threat of wildfires in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
John Alter, owner of a Jackson County tree-farming operation, told lawmakers on the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday that an excessive amount of fuel — fallen trees or branches — from the October storm are noticeable.
“The fuel loads out there are incredible,” said Alter. He said he lost half his timber acreage to Michael.
According to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, more than 200 communities face an increased risk of wildfire as a result of Hurricane Michael. Fuel loadings, according to the agency, are 10 times more than normal.
An agency presentation provided to lawmakers requests “fuel breaks around communities,” an “open burning program” and fire suppression preparation. The Agriculture Department also is asking for “fire suppression dozers, helicopters for inaccessible areas and prevention and fire mitigation equipment and outreach.”
Lawmakers on the Senate Agriculture Committee took input on Monday from agricultural interests affected by the nearly Category 5 storm that made landfall in Mexico Beach on Oct. 10. Speakers represented varied backgrounds, from oyster aquaculture to beekeeping to timber.
State Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who chairs the panel, told reporters afterward that the listening session will help pave the tone for the committee — to “make sure we know what we should know.”
The crop suffering the most financial damage is the state’s forestry industry. It makes up most of Michael’s agriculture toll, taking up $1.3 billion of Michael’s $1.47 billion crop impact.
Albritton said lawmakers will need to talk more about the increased threat of wildfire. He said addressing it is something he would coordinate with incoming Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz.
“This timber problem is something we need to learn a lot about,” Albritton said.
Alter, the Jackson County tree farmer, and Caroline Dauzat, an owner of Rex Lumber in Appalachicola, both told lawmakers they would like to see debris cleanup efforts funded in part by the state. The Ag Department also is asking for the state to fund wildfire-threat reduction initiatives.