The 2009 derecho left a lasting mark on the Shawnee National Forest, resulting in rerouted trails, wildfires and changing habitat.

“It had a huge impact on a whole variety of resources,” said Shawnee National Forest Program Manager Mary McCorvie. Some of the changes and challenges that the storm ushered in persist a decade later.

Among them, she said, is that the derecho changed the trajectory of the road at Humburg Hill in western Union County that was used to force the Cherokee tribe members westward in 1838. High winds toppled trees from slopes, which affected intermittent drainages in the hollow, changed the trajectory of the creek bottoms and ultimately destabilized that portion of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

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Aerial photos provided by Shawnee National Forest show the dramatic damage caused by the May 8, 2009 derecho. 

“The whole area has been altered by the changing hydrology,” she said.

Fire Management Officer Scott Crist said all the downed trees and branches made the forest more combustible.

The year after the derecho, U.S. Forest Service personnel battled the largest wildfire in modern history of the Shawnee National Forest. For several days, crews battled to contain a quickly spreading fire that eventually overtook 409 acres in the Grassy Knob area of southwest Jackson County. The fire, which smoldered for about a week, was fueled by the abundance of fallen, dead trees.

“So what this created is A, a hot fire; B, a fire that we couldn’t build an effective or quick fire line through; and C, there was an increased level of hazards from snags and suspended dead and severed branches caught up in the canopy,” Crist said.

A number of forest acres are still affected by the impacts of the derecho, Crist said. The wildfire hazard has diminished as downed trees progressively rot and decompose, but it is still challenging to build fire lines, which are critical for effective controlled burns, in the most affected wooded areas given the mess it created, he said.

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Aerial photos provided by Shawnee National Forest show the dramatic damage caused by the May 8, 2009 derecho. 

“It increased our effort required to do some of those burns, and others have never been done,” he said. “In some places, it made the burns too hard, and made the risk not worth it because it changed fuel conditions so much that we felt it couldn’t be done safely.”

In most of the affected areas, oaks dominated the overstory. As such, these old, tall trees were the most vulnerable to the inland hurricane winds, he said. This resulted in more light shining into the wooded areas, leading to growth spurts for the maple and beech trees that dominated the understory, which in turn crowded out the development of young oak to replace those lost in the storm.  

Kelly Pearson, wilderness technician and youth host and volunteer coordinator with the Shawnee National Forest, said some trails were substantially altered by the May 8, 2009 derecho. That said, all have since been reopened and are passable, she noted.

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This picture of a large tree fallen over a picnic table at Little Grand Canyon was taken shortly after the May 8, 2009 derecho. 

But it was a huge undertaking to make them usable again. “It was dangerous, hot work,” she said. Workers traveled from West Virginia, Minnesota and New Hampshire to assist, she said. The most grueling work took place in the affected wilderness areas of Bald Knob and Clear Springs west of Alto Pass where motorized equipment is not allowed. That meant workers had to use two-person crosscut saws and other handheld tools to dismantle trees fallen over trails. 

In total, Pearson, who was trails technician at the time, said that about 20 trail miles were affected across the region, including the Pomona Natural Bridge, Little Grand Canyon, Inspiration Point and several surrounding Kinkaid Lake.

“It wasn’t just a tree here and there, but multiple trees. It was really complicated, scary, dangerous stuff,” she said.

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On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​



Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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