Heath Morton, a Georgia Forestry Commission representative who works around Lookout Mountain, right, speaks to other regional forestry and fire department representatives during a meeting in the Catoosa County Commission room in Ringgold, Ga., to discuss the wildfire risk of tornado-felled brush and trees in the area.
RINGGOLD, Ga. — Almost 10 months after tornadoes hit Ringgold, Ray Johnson’s family is still trying to get rid of big, storm-felled trees on their 30 acres inside the city limits.
Johnson came to a meeting Thursday of wildland fire officials at the Catoosa County Administrative Building to see what his options were.
“I approached some people in the tree-removal business. We had promises, but nobody showed up to get the big stuff,” he said.
Jim Sorenson of the North Georgia Fire Protection Education Team said he understood.
“People that normally would be out there fighting to buy the stuff, they’ve got a glut, and they don’t want to talk to you,” Sorenson said.
Johnson was the only landowner among an audience of 15 firefighters from state and federal agencies.
The firefighters strategized while also worrying about how the thousands of tornado-felled trees still lying around could fuel wildfires and impede firefighting.
“I don’t think the public realizes how bad it is, what could happen in this tornado debris,” said Heath Morton, Dade County chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission.
“The No. 1 cause of wildland fires in Dade County in the last five years has been arson,” he said, citing Lookout Mountain as a hotspot.
Morton said the culprits are “kids” who are out having “Friday night fun.”
When arson inspectors investigate, he said, “nobody knows nothing; nobody sees nothing; nobody’s going to turn in their kinfolk.”
Under normal conditions, arson-sparked fires can act like controlled burns and clear underbrush, he said, but the tornadoes are a game-changer.
Three weeks after the tornadoes hit, “we spent nine days on a routine two-acre fire on Lookout Mountain,” Morton said. “It ended up being 54 acres.”
Because of tornado debris, bulldozers didn’t work and crews from five counties had to battle the blaze by hand.
“Thankfully, we got rain, or we’d still be there,” Morton said.
One precautionary idea pitched was keeping a firefighting helicopter on hand. Jeffrey Schardt, U.S. Forest Service District fire management officer, said he can call in a firefighting helicopter from Northeast Georgia.
The Forest Service doesn’t have property in Dade County and normally wouldn’t respond there.
“However, under certain circumstances ... we could be able to assist,” Schardt said. “We need to work those [details] out now.”
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.