2018-03-01 / Community

Hurricane Irma’s damage may be lingering

By Hayden Deakins
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Intern

Intern Brian Euchas ignites a prescribed fire at Corkscrew Swamp. Intern Brian Euchas ignites a prescribed fire at Corkscrew Swamp. Hurricane Irma was devastating, and the utterance of those five syllables can elicit a groan from any Southwest Florida resident. Daily affairs feel like they’re transitioning back to normal finally now, five months removed from that Sunday in September. The effects felt from Irma are surely behind us, right? Think again, for Hurricane Irma could be causing more problems in the future: Its destructive force will impact fire behavior in the upcoming wildfire season.

Any fire needs three essential ingredients to produce a flame: heat, oxygen and fuel. It’s likely that you were introduced to these three components that make up the “fire triangle” when you learned the “stop, drop and roll” technique. In the event you somehow became aflame, rolling on the ground would extinguish the fire by taking away oxygen from the fire.

Both heat and oxygen, barring any major compositional change in the atmosphere, will be present during the peak of fire season in the late spring. Hurricane Irma increased the fuels component of this fire triangle, creating a potentially dangerous future for both residents and the ecosystems that Collier County harbors.

Driving down any road near Golden Gate Estates or in Lehigh Acres, one can see that the pine forests surrounding residences are choked with vegetation. A thick understory of saw palmetto and Brazilian pepper creates an impenetrable green curtain, while vines trail up dense clusters of pine.

A lightning strike preceding a thunderstorm during the peak of dry-down has the potential to create a fire that has access to massive amounts of fuel. The fires can threaten thousands of residences and other properties, and the intensity of the fire itself has the ability to create scarring ecological damage. If a fire burns too hotly, it can significantly reduce top soil and soil carbon levels that plants depend on to grow. With a landscape void of vegetation, it also becomes harder for rainwater – essential to the plants, wildlife and people of Florida – to infiltrate these pine forests and get into the aquifers.

Hurricane Irma’s effects on future fires and the upcoming potential for destruction is gloomy to think about, but there are ways to mitigate the risk of wildfire damage to both residences and our natural lands.

Prescribed fires reduce the hazardous amounts of fuels present. At an individual level, homeowners can also reduce the risk of a wildfire damaging their property. The Florida Forest Service’s Firewise Comunities program suggests reducing the amount of flammable vegetation within 30 feet of a structure. Doing so can make a significant difference in whether your home survives a wildfire.

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