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Hurricane Michael turned millions of trees into kindling. Could wildfire be the next disaster?

The wildfire that broke out Saturday near Panama City should have been an easy one for firefighters to knock down.

Instead, by Monday it had spread to 600 acres and forced the evacuation of about two dozen homes.

The fire was fueled by dead trees left by Hurricane Michael when it smashed through the Panhandle in October. Those same downed trees made if difficult for firefighters to get close enough to battle the blaze.

As wildfire season settles over the state, authorities worry that because of Michael the Panhandle is now facing a second potential disaster.

"Even a normal fire season in the Panhandle could be catastrophic because of all the fuel," Florida Forest Service director Jim Karels said Monday.

Most summers Florida is inundated with rain. Then, come January, the downpours become increasingly rare. The dry season's worst time is right now, said David Zierden, who runs the Florida State University Climate Research Center and serves as the state climatologist.

"Our peak wildfire season is April and May," he said.

To make matters worse, "statewide we have been drier than normal over the past two months," Zierden said. That has turned all the trees lying on or near the ground into perfect kindling.

As a result, he said, "what might be a normal brush fire has a tremendous amount of fuel to feed it."

Michael, a Category 4 storm, clobbered the Panhandle in October, after quickly intensifying over Gulf of Mexico waters that were 2 to 4 degrees warmer than usual.

The amount of downed timber that the storm left behind is staggering. Karels estimated in legislative testimony in January that 1.4 million acres of the state had suffered severe or catastrophic tree loss.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Florida's timber industry faces severe losses from hurricane.

That could lead to a double-whammy for Panhandle residents who are still reeling from the destruction left behind by Michael's 155 mph winds. One, Amy Carter, told the Panama City News Herald over the weekend that she and her husband were packed and ready to flee as this latest fire bore down on them.

"Our house was destroyed in Hurricane Michael, and now this," she said.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Hurricane Michael leaves housing crisis.

At one point, aided by the wind, the fire grew at a rate of about 200-acres-an-hour. Helicopters continuously dumped water from a nearby pond on the blaze while 23 firefighters, multiple bulldozers and one fixed-wing aircraft worked to halt its spread. By Monday afternoon, Karels estimated it was more than 50 percent contained.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said she has been seeking aid money from state and federal sources to pay for clearing out the hurricane debris. Meanwhile Karels, who works for Fried, said his staff has been working with landowners to help them open up fire lines as well as building fire lines around Panhandle communities that might be in the path of a fire.

The greatest danger from wildfire subsides in June, with the start of the summer rains — and the beginning of hurricane season.

Information from the Associated Press and Panama City News-Herald was used in this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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