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Florida’s Panhandle: Woes involve fire, hurricane, oysters, oil spill; plus politics

The Chipola Complex Fire burned within sight of Chris Fowler’s property. (Photo by Chris Fowler.)

By David Pendered

BAYOU GEORGE, Fla. — The environmental calamities continue in Florida’s Panhandle, where trees downed by Hurricane Michael in 2018 finally caught fire this month and burned across more than 34,000 acres before three separate blazes were contained.

The hurricane and fires have added to the region’s economic losses resulting from the decimated oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay. The once-prosperous industry has been in decline for years and, in 2020, the state ordered a five-year halt to all oyster harvesting in the bay, commercial and recreational. The state’s idea is to give the oyster population time to recover from challenges including heavy harvesting in advance of oil expected to enter the bay from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in 2010.

The Chipola Complex Fire was international news in early March. Gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried, who’s Florida’s Democratic agriculture commissioner, seized the moment to intersperse updates about the fire from her department’s Forest Service with press releases opposing laws recently enacted by the Republican-led state government on what she called a voter suppression bill, anti-immigrant legislation, the “Don’t say gay” legislation and the “Stop WOKE Act.”

Now, the fire is old news, even though it forced evacuations from more than 1,000 dwellings located east of the major highway leading into Panama City from points north, U.S. 231.

Public attention has shifted from the fire to a confirmed tornado on March 18 that ripped apart portions of the St. Andrews neighborhood in Panama City. St. Andrews bears a likeness to Atlanta’s Grant Park. The Panama City News Herald reported Sunday on a woman being in a house as it was lifted off its foundation and set down two feet from the starting point — that’s the new distance from back steps to back door. The National Weather Service estimated peak winds reached about 120 mph.

More than 3,000 customers lost electrical power. The Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative reported on Facebook that a direct lightning strike at its office had impaired its outage reporting system. A response posted an ad for a home generator system: “Don’t go without power again.”

The NWS estimated the storm would drop 5 inches of rain during a few hours, potentially causing flash floods. Any rain that fell on the forest fires could have helped extinguish any remaining embers.

By this point, the Florida Forest Service had announced its March 12 update on the fires would be its last on the subject, barring any developments. The two smaller fires were reported as 95 percent contained. The Bertha Swamp Road Fire covered 33,131 acres and was 60 percent contained.

Wildlife displaced by the Chipola Complex Fire was a public safety concern of which the Forest Service advised residents to beware. The bird population overall does not appear to have rebounded completely since the hurricane obliterated nesting areas.

Vast amounts of timber downed by Hurricane Michael remain on the ground. One area that has been cleaned is Tyndall Air Force Base, home of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. The government had money and motivation to remove decaying biomass. Other timber owners have yet to make that investment, leaving the ground covered by snapped treetops and the denuded trunks of seemingly dead trees.

The Florida Forestry Service estimated a week after Hurricane Michael’s Oct. 10, 2018 landfall that trees on 2.8 million acres were damaged or destroyed. The economic loss was estimated at $1.3 billion. The largest cost associated with the hurricane was deemed to be: “Significant debris removal costs for timber that cannot be salvaged.”

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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