PANAMA CITY — Two Florida Forest Service managers who led emergency response teams in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael are among seven selected to receive the 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Award, the nation’s highest honor in in forest fire fighting.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida recipients are Mike Mathis, director of the Chipola Forestry Center, and Chris Colburn, director of the Tallahassee Forestry Center. They, along with the other five national recipients, received their awards Tuesday at the Wildland-Urban Interface conference in Reno, Nevada.
Mathis and Colburn led state strike teams that cleared approximately 570 miles of forest debris on more than 300 properties in eight counties after Michaela Category 5 storm that made landfall in October 2018 devastated Bay County and surrounding areas.
“Hurricane Michael was the most devastating natural disaster to ever strike a private forestry community, affecting everyone at every level of the timber industry…and leaving behind an additional threat (of wildfire) in our communities,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. . “I am impressed with the strength and resilience of the Florida Forest Service team and applaud Mike Mathis and Chris Colburn for this tremendous honor.”
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Despite the progress made by the teams commanded by Mathis and Colburn, remaining Michael’s debris still fuels three ongoing wildfires that make up what is called the Chipola complex. As of Monday, the Bertha Swamp Road Fire was 33,131 acres and 87% contained, the Adkins Avenue Fire was 875 acres and 96% contained, and the Star Avenue Fire was 197 acres and 96% mastered.
Erin Albury, director of the Florida Forest Service, said there was no doubt that a “collaborative, agency-wide effort” was needed to address the challenges caused by Hurricane Michael.
That said, Albury added that it was Mathis and Colburn who stepped up and embodied their leadership roles.
“I am extremely proud of the Chipola Forestry Center and the Tallahassee Forestry Center and the accomplishments they have made over the past three years,” she said. “The National Wildfire Mitigation Award is well deserved.”
A press release from the National Association of State Foresters notes that Hurricane Michael left behind an estimated 72 million tons of broken and uprooted trees that were “ready to burn.”
It also says Mathis and Colburn “helped over 500 residents receive prescribed burn training, held prescribed burn classes for the public, and ran a wildfire prevention campaign to educate residents about the dangerous loading of fuel”.
“The work of Mike Mathis and Chris Colburn is a shining example of how to quickly mitigate wildfire risk following natural disasters,” the statement said. “Mathis and Colburn were both displaced by the storm like so many Floridians, but they continued to work tirelessly, inspiring county administrators to develop wildfire mitigation plans and landowners to participate in assessments. fire-prone properties and land clearing projects.