Nikki Fried, lawmakers eye wildfire risk months after Michael
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried addresses the Senate Agriculture Committee ahead of the 2019 Legislative Session.

Fallen trees and dry weather could mean trouble for Northwest Florida.

An increased threat of wildfire resulting from fallen timber in Northwest Florida is prompting Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to encourage “fast action” toward debris cleanup.

Fried, a Democrat, told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that downed trees and other debris from Hurricane Michael make wildfire prevention a priority, as “we get into a dryer season.”

“If we don’t clear those fields and replant, the amount of devastation from forest fires is going to be something that we want to prevent,” Fried said, adding that “fast-tracking” cleanup is a priority.

The crop suffering the most financial damage from Hurricane Michael 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. The looming threat of wildfires as a result of fallen trees is a tangential impact.

Fried told the panel of lawmakers she’d soon release a “very robust legislative agenda which will include helping to provide our farmers and our timber industry with the disaster relief we so desperately need.”

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.

Jim Karels, Director of the Florida Forest Service, reiterated the risk of wildfires to the panel.  

“If it gets dry, it’s a huge threat,” Karels said.

Karels said that already there have been a number of fires since the storm, but one last week occurred in a “blowdown … a heavy timber area.”

“It took us two hours to get to it,” he added.

Karels presented to the panel some forthcoming changes in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ annual budget request.

Among the line items: A near $5 million request for a helicopter to fight fires in Northwest Florida.

“Without those helicopters, we will be in dire straits when the conditions get dry and these fires start appearing,” Karels said.

The Florida Forest Service, a branch of FDACS, also will request $3.8 million for “heavy dozers, debris removal vehicles and operating costs to address wildfire threat.”

As well, Karels and company are looking for $20 million to kickstart a debris removal and reforestation program, along with $547,000 for “wildfire mitigation” and a “prescribed fire and fire prevention program addressing hurricane issues.”

State Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who chairs the panel, told reporters afterward Karel’s presentation will help “this committee really understand that [Michael] is legitimately catastrophic.”

Last updated on January 22, 2019

Danny McAuliffe

Danny McAuliffe is a Tallahassee correspondent for Florida Politics. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as the editor of the FSView & Florida Flambeau. He is a lifelong Floridian and indulges in swimming, hiking, running and memes when the news cycle permits. Reach him at [email protected]

One comment

  • Eva Hayes

    January 23, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for the update. As a pine tree producer in Calhoun County, Fl I can’t understate the devastation that occurred from Hurricane Michael. We need all of the help we can get to be back in business. It is a long term business which will take 15 to 18 years from now to get some sort of income coming in. We can’t do this on our own. The best way to prevent a wildfire like the one in California is to get the timber up off the ground and to do that
    we need resources. We have 2200 acres to get back into production. Our county depends on the timber industry for jobs of all kinds from producers to loggers to truck drivers and many more. We need for legislators to pass Bill’s that will help timber producers to get back on their feet.

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