Florida Feedback Effect: In Panhandle, Fires Complete the Climate’s Vicious Cycle

March 9, 2022

New York Times:

Three sweeping wildfires that started last week in the Florida Panhandle have burned more than 29,000 acres and are threatening surrounding communities amid dry and windy weather, the authorities said Tuesday.

The blazes, which are collectively called the Chipola Complex, are being fed by dead trees and other vegetation left by Hurricane Michael in 2018, fire officials said.

“This is a living, breathing beast,” Brad Monroe, the chief of emergency services in Bay County, said Tuesday during a news conference. “When it produces its own weather, you see lightning strikes within a fire on a bright sunny day, it’s incredible. Words cannot describe it.”

The largest blaze in the Chipola Complex, the Bertha Swamp Road fire, was more than 28,000 acres in size and was 10 percent contained, according to a Tuesday evening news release from the Florida Forest Service. The fire is centered about 60 miles west of Tallahassee.

“It is a life taker,” Jimmy Patronis, the state fire marshal, said during the news conference, adding that residents should not take chances. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

Gusty winds on Tuesday caused erratic fire behavior that prompted additional evacuation orders for parts of Calhoun County, officials said.

The impact of Hurricane Michael on longleaf pine habitats in Florida – Nature May 21, 2020:

Global biodiversity hotspots (GBHs) are increasingly vulnerable to human stressors such as anthropogenic climate change, which will alter the ecology of these habitats, even where protected. The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem (LPE) of the North American Coastal Plain is a GBH where disturbances are integral for ecosystem maintenance. However, stronger storms due to climate change may be outside their historical norm. In this study, we estimate the extent of Florida LPE that was directly affected by Hurricane Michael in 2018, an unprecedented Category 5 storm. We then leveraged a unique data set in a Before-After study of four sites within this region. We used variable-area transects and generalized linear mixed-effects models to estimate tree densities and logistic regression to estimate mortality by size class. We found at least 28% of the global total remaining extent of LPE was affected in Florida alone. Mortality was highest in medium sized trees (30–45 cm dbh) and ranged from 4.6–15.4% at sites further from the storm center, but increased to 87.8% near the storm center. As the frequency and intensity of extreme events increases, management plans to mitigate climate change need to account for large-scale stochastic mortality events to preserve critical habitats.

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