Downed trees from tornadoes could spur fires, erosion

Downed trees from tornadoes could spur fires, erosion

June 7th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

Ron Deal cuts logs on Cherokee Valley Road while clearing trees that were downed by a tornado.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

RINGGOLD, Ga. - Perched high atop his scissor-lift, Benny Goins has a bird's-eye view of acres of flattened forest off Cherokee Valley Road.

And Goins, who inspects about 140 loads of trees and storm debris every day as the site monitor for one of Catoosa County's disposal sites, doesn't like what he sees.

The toppled and mangled trees, laid down like broken corn stalks, could mean erosion, an increased risk of fire and a loss of habitat for the animals that lived in the woods, he said. The first week after the storms, vultures circled constantly, swooping down to snack on the woodland creatures killed in the tornadoes.

"This can really be a problem," Goins said.

It's the danger of fire that has many forestry officials concerned. In a few months they expect the fallen trees to dry out, adding a dangerous amount of fuel for potential blazes.

"During the fall we're probably going to pay," said Heath Morton, Dade County forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Morton and others say the added fuel is a concern, but the downed trunks and limbs also make travel around the forests more difficult, even for bulldozers. In the case of a fire, it's even more of a problem, preventing firefighters from getting where they need to go. A 10-acre fire that normally would take a single bulldozer an hour to contain is now taking eight hours with four bulldozers working, said Chuck Arnold, forester for Catoosa and Whitfield counties.

"We're bracing for our fire season this year," he said.

Catoosa was one of the hardest-hit areas in the April 27 storms. About 4,600 acres of timber were damaged or destroyed, according to Arnold.

Josh Burnette, the regional forester for Northwest Georgia, said that, even after the fires are contained, the extra logs will mean more maintenance to prevent future flare-ups.

"Those logs and things smolder for a lot longer than grass, so it takes more follow-up," he said. "Next two or three years, it's going to be a headache for us."

Beyond the fire risk, there is a small increase in the risk of pine beetle infestations, said Mitch Cohen, information specialist with the Chattahoochee National Forest, where 2,000 acres of timber were damaged. In areas where pine trees were mangled but not knocked over, the weakened trees could be more susceptible to an invasion from the deadly bugs.

In Tennessee, tornadoes missed most national forest land, according to Eric Taylor, a forester in the Cherokee National Forest's Ocoee Ranger District. But any damage could be amplified by this summer's dry weather, which limits a tree's ability to produce sap, its primary defense against invading bugs.

"Those open wounds from broken limbs or the tops broken off would just allow easier entry for those insects," Taylor said.

In some good news, the animals still in the toppled forest should be able to adapt quickly, Cohen said. In fact, the downed trees could mean more sunlight reaches the forest floor, which would help the small plants that deer and other animals live on.

"It's a tradeoff," Cohen said. "It's all part of the natural process."

Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfree or call 423-757-6324.