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Hurricane Michael Debris Made Florida Wildfire Harder to Fight

Climate
Hurricane Michael Debris Made Florida Wildfire Harder to Fight
Trees downed by Hurricane Michael. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

A wildfire that broke out in Florida's Panhandle Saturday that should have been easy to contain was quicker to spread and harder to fight because of debris left over from Hurricane Michael.

The fire burned around 678 acres over the weekend and forced 20 homes to be evacuated in Bay County, AccuWeather reported. The fire burning near Allanton, Florida was 50 percent contained at only 15 acres Saturday evening when wind caused it to spread to 100 acres within an hour. Winds also pushed it south Sunday, and the Florida Fire Service described it as "stubborn."


"Under normal conditions it would have been a few hours and a few acres," Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said during an update on the fire reported by The News Service of Florida. "But because of the fact of all the timber on the ground and because the weather conditions, it escalated to be the 600-plus (acres) because of all the fuel on the ground and the inability to get there."

The most recent update from the Chipola division of the Florida Fire Service Monday said that the fire was 75 percent contained at 668 acres. It was also started by a debris burn that got out of control.


Officials are worried that the weekend's fire could be the start to a particularly dangerous fire season for the state. Hurricane Michael downed 72 million tons of trees between the Gulf Coast and the Georgia border, and most of them have yet to be cleared.

"Even a normal fire season in the Panhandle could be catastrophic because of all the fuel," Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels said Monday, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

However, this year's fire season, which peaks in April and May, also comes during a particularly dry year for the state.

"[S]tatewide we have been drier than normal over the past two months," state climatologist and Florida State University Climate Research Center head David Zierden said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

This could make life even more difficult for Panhandle residents still recovering from Hurricane Michael, which slammed the area in October of 2018.

"Our house was destroyed in Hurricane Michael, and now this," Amy Carter, who was preparing to evacuate due to the fire, told the Panama City News Herald, as the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Hurricane Michael, a category 4 hurricane, was the strongest to ever hit the Panhandle. It intensified rapidly due to warmer than average water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, a sequence of events consistent with predictions about how climate change will influence hurricanes.

Fried used the occasion to call for state and federal aid to help with Michael recovery.

"Other parts of our country have seen (federal) disaster packages within weeks after a disaster," Fried said, according to The News Service of Florida. "And now almost six months later we are still waiting. This is absolutely unacceptable."

Fried has requested $39 million from the state to remove debris, plant new trees and buy new firefighting equipment, but the Florida House and Senate are still negotiating a final budget.


A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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