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Meteorologists predict little to no relief

Wildfire danger continues to threaten parched areas of the state

First there was too much rain with precipitation amounts nearly double the normal in some parts of the state during the first quarter of the year. Then a nearly month-long drought settled in during May that frustrated farmers, caused fears of wildfires that resulted in a outdoor burning ban on the Coast and led to record levels of demand for electricity across the state.

A storm system in late May brought welcome relief, saving many farmers from crop failure. But nature was fickle. Some areas received enough rain to recover from the dry period, while others areas got scarcely enough to settle the dust.

Generally, areas north of Jackson got a good, drenching rain while the southern part of the state generally wasn’t as fortunate.

“To go three weeks in May without any rain is very unusual,” said Kent Grizzard, information forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission. “Actually, summer hasn’t even started yet. October is the driest month throughout the Southeastern U.S.”

Grizzard said the dry weather caused a increased risk of wildfires, particularly on the Coast. The Coast has conditions similar to the panhandle of Florida, where wildfires have raged out of control in the Apalachicola National Forest. About 9,000 acres of land burned in Florida in May, some fires threatening homes and businesses.

“When a wildfire gets started, what happens is that you almost always have houses and other types of buildings in areas adjacent to the forest land,” Grizzard said. “Not only do you have the problem of heat damage to trees, it poses such an incredible risk to the people who live in the community when the fire starts.”

Grizzard said coastal areas of the state were as dry as Florida, but said Mississippi had been more fortunate in not having any large wildfires break out. He said it takes a lot of rain to turn things around. Afternoon thunderstorms that hit for 15 minutes don’t help that much as a lot of the water is absorbed by leaves of trees, and never penetrates the ground.

Most wildfires start accidentally. For example, nearly half of Deer Island burned in May when campers didn’t properly extinguish their fire. The fire produced great amounts of smoke, and the island glowed eerily red long into the evening hours. Some tourists watched the burning from balconies of high-rise hotels on Casino Row in Biloxi.

Harrison County fire coordinator George Mixon said the Deer Island fire illustrated the danger of what could happen in a populated areas if a similar wildfire broke out.

“We’re in the same situation as the panhandle of Florida,” Mixon said. “And we don’t see any relief in sight this week. Rain has been sketchy. In some areas we got an inch of rain. In other areas we got just a trace.”

With the Coast still very dry in some areas, there is particular concern about fireworks during the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. In 1997, two pavilions and a shed on the Coast were accidentally torched by bottle rockets.

“If anyone sees anything smoldering, don’t hesitate to call 911,” said Mixon. “All it would take is a careless cigarette thrown out of a car or kids playing around without thinking of the repercussions, and we could have a serious situation on our hands. The fire danger right now is extremely high. If a major fire was to get out of control, it would take all the resources of local, state and federal government to control it…along with some help from God.”

State residents are being asked to be particularly cautious, and should be aware of the danger of pulling off to the side of the highway onto dry grass during periods of very hot weather. The catalytic converter is so hot it can cause grass fires that can not only start a wildfire, but destroy the vehicle. Coast residents shouldn’t burn anything outdoors until the burning ban is listed. Charcoal embers shouldn’t be discarded until completely cooled.

Mixon said rapid population growth on the Coast means that there are far more homes, trailers and businesses now in rural areas next to forest lands. That makes those structures — and their residents — vulnerable to forest fires.

Mild winter brings other headaches

Wildfire isn’t the only concern regarding forestry.

Grizzard said an unusually mild winter followed by dry weather means an increased possibility of pine beetle infestations.

Southern pine beetles can be tremendously damaging to pine trees, and do the most harm when trees are under stress from conditions such as drought.

“Fires can go through the forest without killing the trees but, with southern pine beetles, it is another story,” Grizzard said. “When southern pine beetles start causing damage, the trees usually can’t recover.”

Farming operations throughout the state were affected by the dry spell, but many farms received enough rain in late May to ease the situation.

“Dry-land corn got hit the worst,” said Coahoma County Agent Ann Ruscoe. “Everything else is faring pretty good.”

Ruscoe said farmers are still keeping an eye on the weather because it has been anything but cooperative so far this year.

“We’ve had some unusual weather patterns, but we don’t call them unusual anymore because what is normal?” Ruscoe asks. “What is normal is that nothing is like it usually is.

“We’re working with depressed market prices. Thus far we have a good crop in the field, but it is a must that we spend money wisely on this year’s crop because our profit margin is very narrow. So it is not a crop that we want to make a mistake on.”


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