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Florida fires take toll on forests.

With Florida's worst fire season in 50 years finally over, many foresters and volunteers are facing the clean-up and restoration of hundreds of thousands of acres devastated this summer.

Much of the severity of the wildfires can be attributed to the lush undergrowth that sprouted during heavier-than-normal winter rains, then quickly parched and burned in the extremely dry summer that followed. Losses in property and timber are estimated to top $500 million; the damage to Florida's forest ecosystems has yet to be determined.

Although many wildfires are beneficial to forests, sparking a quick regrowth - for example, longleaf pine fares better after exposure to fire - most of last summer's blazes were so intense, they scorched soil and burned trees, roots and all.

And it may be some time before damaged lands are ready for replanting, according to John O'Meara, state land supervisor for the Florida Division of Forestry. "Removing timber remains and preparing the land for planting projects could be a long process," he says. O'Meara also fears that nurseries will have a shortage of seedlings available to meet the demand and, with winter planting time just around the corner, most reforestation will have to wait until next year.

Survival checks by Florida foresters this fall will determine just how much state land will need to be reforested. One thing is certain, though: Mother Nature did not treat Florida's forests kindly.

The Tiger Bay and Lake George state forests near Daytona Beach were hit hardest by the wildfires, with more than half of Tiger Bay's almost 24,000 acres of forest-land destroyed. Fortunately, AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf Forest at Lake George, which contains both longleaf and slash pine, suffered only mild damage.

Lightning sparked fires in nearby Jacksonville, close to AMERICAN FORESTS' Famous & Historic Trees nursery. "A lot of smoke was in the air and fires were burning within 10 miles of the nursery, but luckily the fire didn't affect any Famous & Historic Trees," says program director Jeff Meyer.

Many areas not hit by the fires suffered mightily from the heat and drought. The driest summer in decades caused many trees to wilt and die, including some of the newly planted Global ReLeaf trees at Lake George. "Some places you can see entire rows dead, but in the heart of the forests there is very satisfactory survival rates," said O'Meara. "The Global ReLeaf trees were planted early enough in the season, when we were still getting rain."

Summer lightning storms sparked 100 new blazes a day at times. Just as fire-fighters and volunteers put out one fire, new ones would blaze up. At press time more than 2,000 wildfires had sparked, burning more than a half-million acres of land. AMERICAN FORESTS this year will plant more than 250,000 trees at two Global ReLeaf sites. To contribute, call 800/873-5323.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Baker, Jennifer
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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