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Officials: Hurricanes a Catch-22 for wildfires

Major storms can be a good thing for forests, but the dry debris left behind is a wildfire hazard, according to Florida Forest Service officials.

By Laurie K. Blandford
Treasure Coast Newspapers

Hurricanes can be a Catch-22 as they relate to wildfires.

Major storms such as Hurricane Irma can be a good thing for forests, but the dry debris left behind creates a wildfire hazard, according to Florida Forest Service officials.

“It’s like a cleaning of our forests,” said Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Treasure Coast. “All we have to do is pick it up off the ground.”

State and county parks have crews to clean public lands, Yunas said, and they’ve been picking up Irma debris and clearing trails of dead branches and weakened limbs.

The concern comes when undeveloped properties have piles of vegetation that dry out within just a few days and become kindling, she said. Although the typical dry season begins in mid- to late October, wildfires in Florida occur any time of the year.

Homes vs. vacant lots

Most residents can clear debris from their own yards, roofs and gutters, then pile it on the side of the road for pickup. That includes using a chainsaw to cut up felled trees.

But some people aren’t physically able and must depend on others to help, Yunas said.

“The accumulation of debris invites a wildfire home,” she said. “We need to help our neighbors out or encourage them to clean up their debris in and around their houses because it is a wildfire risk.”

Some rural residents burn their debris in small piles — hopefully in compliance with state rules, Yunas said — but that increases the risk of wildfires because embers and flames can escape.

Wildfires are a greater risk for residents who live next to big, undeveloped properties.

“When you have a large parcel of land, maybe 3 to 5 acres or more, then the fire could easily pick up momentum and speed like a locomotive,” Yunas said.

Fallen trees on undeveloped land often remain on the ground, blocking roads and access for firefighters.

“Our bulldozers can get in there, but it’s just going to take a little more time moving that tree or finding access around that tree,” Yunas said. “It’s going to take a lot more equipment and manpower to put these fires out.”

More harm than good

Strong winds can help eliminate weaker, problematic trees, said senior forester Mark Torok. But if the wind is too strong, it can kill healthy trees.

“Hopefully, these trees that failed during the storm will be replaced by a better tree species or the same tree species with a better tree structure form or a better grade tree,” Torok said.

Hurricanes have negative effects on the environment as a whole, he said. Fewer trees and leaves means less carbon storage and oxygen production from their foliage.

Trees that were in great health before a storm — especially the South Florida slash pine found across Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties — can become stressed and hazardous afterward, he said. Some stressed trees emit pheromones that attract native pine beetle invasions.

“Storms, like some wildfires, can do a natural spring-cleaning process for the weak or problematic trees in the rural forest and in the urban forest,” Torok said. “However, when storms become too extreme or strong — like when a wildfire becomes too hot — they can cause more harm than good.”

Some of the trees that appear burned and dead can recover, depending on what stage of dormancy they were in at the time of the hurricane, and if the bugs don’t take over, Yunas said.

“Right now’s the test to see if they can survive,” Yunas said.

Copyright 2017 Treasure Coast Newspapers