FLORIDA – After a wildfire runs through a national forest, what’s left behind often looks like a charred wasteland. Residents in the closely surrounding area—known as the wildland urban interface—breathe a huge sigh of relief. The danger is gone. People return to their everyday lives.
In May 2019, three wildfires threatened residents and their homes in the Ocala wildland urban interface —the Powerline, Refuge and Island Pond Fires. Although homeowners were forced to evacuate during the Powerline Fire, Ocala firefighters and Marion County Fire Rescue were able to manage it and no structures or lives were lost. But the danger doesn’t just come from the wildfire itself. Sometimes the hazards show up later.
“Once the timber that’s left behind dries out and cures, it becomes highly flammable,” says Ocala National Forest Deputy District Ranger Carrie Sekerak. “This creates a new danger for the residents who just lived through the wildfire.”
Because of the re-burn potential in the wildland urban interface, archeologists, silviculturists, foresters and wildlife biologists put their heads together and developed the Ocala 2019 Post-Fire Wildlife Habitat Improvement Project. This proposed timber harvest—part salvage sale to remove dead, infested, damaged or down trees, and part green sale to remove live trees—would cover around 1,700 acres in areas affected by and adjacent to the three recent Ocala wildfires.
“The last thing we want to do is leave fuels in the forest that could burn again,” said Sekerak. “This harvest will not only help residents, it will also help us create habitat for important wildlife like the Florida scrub-jay.”
This ecosystem provides homes for animals such as the endemic Florida scrub-jay and Florida mouse, several species of skink and lizard, and the gopher tortoise -- a keystone species that, if removed from the ecosystem, would change the habitat drastically. Therefore, the Ocala’s proposal would leave 10 percent of the burned acres untouched, including standing oak brush and snags dispersed in quarter-acre to five-acre patches.
The project will help residents, wildlife and the local wood-products industry.
Mike Jones, forestry technician on the Ocala, has been prepping the area for harvest.
“A lot of these trees are smaller in diameter, so they’ll make great pulp for paper towels and toilet paper. People don’t always connect items we use every day with their national forest,” said Jones.
“When I first came to the Forest Service, I didn’t understand how important trees are. I was always taught that cutting down trees is bad,” Jones said. “But now I understand that harvesting trees is good for the environment as long as we do it in a sustainable way. That’s why I love my job. I’m really making a difference.”
Sekerak said this “black and green sale,” as the staff on the Ocala call it, is a win-win for everyone. The sale should be ready for bid in mid-August.