March was the driest month on record for portions of Central and South Mississippi. Besides impacts to agriculture, the dry weather occurring at the same time there was a lot of winter freeze vegetation in the forests caused a large number of damaging forest fires, some of which destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of timber.
“We normally have 500 fires in March, and we had a little over 1,000 this year,” said Harold Anderson, external information and education officer, Mississippi Forestry Commission. “And the size of the fires averaged three times the normal size for March. We have less than half the fire crews we had five to 10 years ago. Our budgets have been steadily eroding. We don`t have enough people to man the equipment. With the dry spell in South Mississippi, we had more than twice as many fires burning as we had crews available to fight them.”
With 61% of the land in Mississippi being used for commercial forestry, the cutbacks at the forestry commission could have wide ranging impacts. Anderson said in order to fight the fires in March, they had to pull crews from other districts and counties to help with the large fires raging in coastal counties.
“That left the crew`s county with no fire protection,” Anderson said. “The situation is very, very serious. People who have invested a lot of money over the years in timber production need to take notice. This is not a state agency crying wolf. We have cut fat, cut fat and cut fat. There is no more fat to cut. We are cutting off fingers and toes, and will soon be cutting off arms.”
Spring is a critical time for wildfires for several reasons. March is normally the windy month. And frost kill vegetation has been lying there all winter. Before spring green up, the vegetation is about as dry it is going to get.
“So we have two components for fire: dry material and wind,” Anderson said. “Springtime is also the season a lot of people clean up around houses. They rake and burn leaves. Farmers burn off fields getting ready to replant. Cattlemen burn off pastures to so new grass will sprout more quickly. For those reasons, spring is normally the time when we have most of the fires. You compound that with unusually dry weather, and it exacerbates the problem.”
Anderson said the spring fires can be very damaging because trees are breaking dormancy. What is called the candle – long, tender, delicate shoots that grow rapidly – is very susceptible to fire damage.
One fire in Harrison County burned 600 acres of pine plantation that was from one to 10 years old. Anderson talked to one of the fire crew who fought that fire who said there was nothing left but a bunch of burnt sticks. Damage was estimated at about $100,000. Another fire in Harrison County burned 800 acres of land with bigger timber. That fire “crowned out,” meaning the fire went out to the tops of the trees.
“Sometimes bigger trees will come back,” Anderson said. “We will have to wait and see. But there could be substantial damages in hundreds of thousands in a fire like that.”
Besides contributing to wildfire danger, drought can have a number of impacts on forestry. For example, it can impact the survival of newly planted seedlings.
“If we get back to normal weather cycle, we shouldn`t have a problem this year,” Anderson said. “But if drought does develop, we will have poor survival of seedlings. There will be a definite impact.”
State climatologist Dr. Charlie Wax said the upper Delta and north-central parts of the state are a little wetter than usual, while the rest of the state is a little dry. In Jackson and on the Coast, it was the driest March on record. The average is about six inches in March, and some areas of the state received an inch or less. The up side of that equation is spring is normally the time the state gets some of its more severe weather, some of which can lead to flooding.
“We skated through some of the severe weather,” Wax said. “This is the time of year we can have floods.”
Just two days after Wax said that, on April 23, parts of South Mississippi such as George County had rainfalls of up to 10 inches. The rainfall caused a dam to break in George County, and there was also house flooding unrelated to the dam break.
Although it would have been preferably to have the rain spread out over several days rather than come in one big deluge, the rain was very welcome. Before the big rain in late May, South Mississippi truck farmers were worried their crops simply wouldn`t sprout and grow. Cattle farmers were seeing pastures dry up, producing little grass.
Lee Taylor, Forrest County Extension director, said the rain in late April was an answer to a prayer.
“This is really a Godsend here,” Taylor said. “We were really almost desperate. This is going to allow our cotton and peanut farmers to get started planting. Before, there was very little moisture in the top few inches of the soil. Also, it is going to start our pastures to start growing. It will help the bahia grass get started for the summer, and that is very important because the rye grass, a winter annual, is playing out.”
Larry Oldham, extension soil specialist for Mississippi State University, said in the Delta, the state`s largest agricultural production area, rainfall has been adequate.
“About two thirds of the state has reported adequate soil moisture,” Oldham said. “We’re a little cooler than we would like. But that seems to be changing. Looking at the crop report, on corn we were 94% planted and 75% emerged. That compares to the five-year average at this time of year of 81% planted and 61% emerged. So that is good.”
Oldham said the crop year is going well with prices looking favorable. But there are some concerns about increased costs related to the energy market. Fuel is more expensive. Nitrogen fertilizer prices are closely related to the price of natural gas. So farmers are facing higher costs for nitrogen and other fertilizers.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.