By JACK WEATHERLY
The Mississippi Forestry Commission will eliminate 75 positions July 1 – two-thirds of which are firefighting jobs – due to a $2.67 million, or 16 percent, cut in its budget.
The reduction is because of the state’s drop in revenue, which has forced government cuts across the board.
State Forester Charlie Morgan said in a release that “preserving the Mississippi Forestry Commission’s statutorily mandated responsibility to protect forestland, lives and homes from wildfire is our top priority. After much deliberation, the difficult decision was made to consolidate and reorganize districts, leaving as many wildland firefighting ‘boots on the ground’ in place as possible.”
Starting July 1, the commission will consolidate its seven districts into four.
Forestry was the state’s second-largest source of agricultural income in 2016, bringing an estimated $1.4 billion of the Mississippi total of $7.6 billion. About 75 percent of the state’s forestland is privately owned.
The cutback comes at a time when there has been a rise in wildfires. In fiscal 2016, 31,370 acres of forestland were struck by wildfires, compared with 25,870 acres the previous year and 17,567 acres in fiscal 2014, according to the commission.
And it comes after a reduction in force of 25 last year, all of whom were arson investigators and equipment managers, according to Assistant State Forester Russell Bozeman. Five vacant positions were not filled, Bozeman said.
Gov. Phil Bryant issued burn bans in the fall of 2015 and 2016 due to severe drought. Typically, the most dangerous season is early spring after winter has killed back vegetation, though a mild winter allowed an early greening this year, Bozeman said.
Leading up to the next reduction, the commission employs 345, most of whom are firefighters, Bozeman said.
The commission has had to rely more on volunteer fire departments around the state, but it has been able to help them with firefighting equipment and personnel gear through federal programs, Bozeman said.
State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney, who is also insurance commissioner, said that 2017 is the sixth consecutive year that the state has not given the fire marshal’s office any money for rural firetrucks.
In order to keep a lid on insurance rates, “I had them all to recertify their trucks, if they were old, for another five years” with minor repairs.
“The state fire marshal’s office is voluntarily checking all suspicious fires at the request of the local sheriff’s offices,” Chaney said.
Tedrick Ratcliff, executive vice president of the Mississippi Forestry Association, said “from our perspective, anytime there has been a reduction in force, there is a concern.”