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Drought across state heaps insult upon injury

Hot and dry

Mississippi’s two largest industries, forestry and agriculture, didn’t need the knockout blow of Hurricane Katrina last August followed by summer skies this year that have remained stubbornly clear. After widespread impacts from Katrina, large areas of the state are suffering from lack of rain now.

“It has been dry a long time,” said the state’s climatologist, Dr. Charlie Wax, a professor of geoscience at Mississippi State University. “About 50% of the state is short or very short in soil moisture. It has been dry all over the state for the past four weeks or more. The Coast got into drought even before that. One of the concerns is forest fires because of all the damage from Katrina last fall. All that timber is on the ground drying out.”

Near-future change not expected

South Mississippi has experienced the driest conditions in the state. In the past month, Gulfport received only three quarters of an inch of rain, and Picayune only a third. Wax said the reason for the dry weather is an upper level ridge in the western part of the continent that has kept skies clear, leading to hot and dry conditions.

It doesn’t look like any change in the air patterns for the near future, which is bad news for those hoping for a break in the drought.

“Yes, indeed, we are in a drought, and at a bad time of year,” Wax said. “It makes it seem worse because usually this is not a dry time for us. Normally, on the Coast you get five inches of rain in May. It looks like nothing short of a tropical storm will give us major relief. Streams are dropping, but have not dropped to a dangerous level at this time.”

“In Forrest County, we are really dry again,” says Forrest County Extension agent Lee Taylor. “Peanuts and cotton are up and looking good, but we could use some moisture.”

Mississippi Farm Bureau president David Waide said farmers across the state are worried about having enough water.

“I am very concerned,” Waide said. “I can’t remember a May and June this dry in a long, long time. It is really going to have an impact on the yields.”

The Delta is the only significant area in the state that has substantial irrigation capabilities. But an extended drought makes it very expensive to pump water with energy costs being so high. Plus, Waide said it is almost impossible to pump enough water when in this type of drought.

Most of the Southeast is also experiencing below normal rainfall, although the weather patterns in the Midwest have been normal. Louisiana is experiencing extreme drought with southern Louisiana the driest it has been in the 111 years weather records have been kept.

The heat along with the drought is a major concern for poultry growers, says Mike Pepper, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association.

“Growers do not rest easy when the temperatures are high,” Pepper said. “Also, many growers have opportunities other than growing chickens. They have hay for cattle, crops and other things that need rain. So the drought is playing a large part in their bottom lines.”

Enormous impact

For forestry, the timing of the drought makes it very difficult for a state that had $1.1 billion worth of timber destroyed by the hurricane.

“We knew after the hurricane we would be facing historically high fire danger, particularly in South Mississippi,” said Bruce Alt, executive vice president, Mississippi Forestry Association. “The amount of fuel available to burn because of the Hurricane Katrina damage to our forests is unprecedented. All we needed is a couple of bad things to happen: drought and wind. Combined with historically unprecedented fuel loads, we have had catastrophic fire conditions. We are not out of those woods yet. These types of fires could threaten not just forests, but homes and entire towns. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but we are looking at a fuel load we have never seen in this state before.”

In addition to the threats to lives and homes, wildfires cause negative impacts to water quality, destroy wildlife habitat, impact air quality and can be a safety threat from smoke on roadways.

Firefighters and volunteers are being exposed to very hot and hazardous conditions. Kent Grizzard, public relations director for the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC), said there is a great deal of hurricane debris that has been washed up into forests. Instead of just burning wood, fires are burning plastics, chemicals, building debris and other materials that can produce toxic fumes.

“When you have these wood fires, more is burning than just woody debris,” Grizzard said. “It is fighting fires burning from unknown debris. All firefighters have to be alert to almost all fires in coastal counties in that you don’t know what is out in the woods. We have heard of cases where there are propane tanks. There is such an unusual element to fire control right now.”

The drought makes it even worse because the fires burn with such intense heat that firefighters can’t get close enough to use usual tactics. Fires end up becoming larger because of that. It is difficult for crews to plow fire breaks as normal because of all the downed wood. Fire crews are using tactics such as establishing roads as a fuel break to stop the spread of the fire.

“We are learning a lot about new fire tactics in areas where there is hurricane damaged timber,” Grizzard said.

Comparisons with 2000

The state’s last drought was in 2000. During that fiscal year, MFC had 6,355 wildfires that burned 77,164 acres. For the latest fiscal year that ends July 1, the MFC had 5,757 fires that burned 121,374 acres. Through the first two weeks of June, there were 308 wildfires that burned 8,611 acres.

Normally the average number of fires for June is 48, and average number of acres burned in June is 264.

Wildfire is not the only concern resulting from drought. The other forestry related concerns are lower survival rates for the seedlings planted this past winter, and stress that makes trees more susceptible to Southern pine beetle infestations.

For a complete look at everything about forestry in Mississippi since Katrina, see the Web site www.msforestry.blogspot.com.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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