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Wildfire!

Drought turns state into kindling

For the second time this year, state officials are in a high state of alert due to a spate of wildfires statewide. Wildfires have already claimed property across the state, but unlike the oil spill, have also already threatened lives.

And, the drought conditions fostering the threat could have an impact that will be felt by the agriculture and forestry communities into next year, perhaps beyond.

Dry, windy weather that has persisted since mid-September has turned the state into kindling. When asked about the state’s soil moisture, Dr. Larry Oldham. Mississippi State University Extension Service soil specialist, deadpanned, “What soil moisture? There isn’t any.”

He is not exaggerating. According to figures from the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC), before an Oct. 13 rain that brought temporary relief to some areas, soil in parts of the state were reading as high as 700 on a soil moisture index that only goes to 800. Anything above 300 is considered “dry.”

Tests showed “one-hour fuels” (i.e., grasses, twigs, etc.) held only 3 percent to 4 percent of their moisture before the Oct. 13 rain.

While the entire state has been generally rain-free since mid-September, parts of the state have been well under average for rainfall all year. Mark Silva, Mississippi State Extension associate at Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville, recorded 26.71 inches of rain from Jan 1.-Sept. 12 of this year, compared to 50.69 inches over the comparable period in 2009. From Sept. 12-Oct. 13, 2010, not a single drop of rain fell on the station. Last year, Stoneville was wet more days than not during that same period.

The Oct. 13 rain brought .36 inches of rain to Stoneville. “It was not enough to even settle the dust,” Silva said flatly.

According to State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney, Mississippi firefighters had responded to nearly 7,000 brush fires by the end of September, and the numbers continue to rise. Earlier this month, the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC) was receiving reports of 60-80 wildfires per day statewide. An Oct. 4 wildfire in Newton and Lauderdale counties destroyed more than $1 million in timber. (The MFC could not substantiate that figure reported by the Associated Press). The cause of the fire was linked to a single bag of burning trash.

The scenario officials fear the worst, however, occurred Oct. 5 in Madison County. That fire threatened homes and buildings and forced evacuations. The eight-hour firefight left crews from eight fire departments exhausted, their resources stretched thin. No homes or lives were lost.

The following day, Gov. Haley Barbour issued a statewide burn ban. This followed the MFC’s statewide wildfire risk alert issued Sept. 30.

Parties violating the burn ban face a fine of up to $500. However, if that fire destroys other property, the guilty party is liable for that damage as well as for any firefighting resources required.

There can even be indirect liability. According to Russell Bozeman, forest protection and information, MFC, if smoke from a wildfire blows across a highway, obscuring vision and causing an accident, the party responsible for that fire is liable for that, too.

An act of arson is obviously a criminal offense. The Madison County fire was determined to be an act of arson. At press time, no arrests had been made. Bozeman could not give details due to the ongoing investigation, but did say additional information has been obtained.

Not only are forest owners threatened by fire now, they face additional losses in the future from the drought. According to Dr. James Henderson, Extension forestry specialist, the average annual seedling mortality is 20 percent. However, the dry conditions will almost certainly drive up mortality.

MFC researchers will begin monitoring seedling mortality later this month, but, they, too, expect much higher seedling deaths, according to Bozeman.

And, forest owners face another long-term impact. Dry conditions have made more timber accessible to cutting. Henderson said much of this land, in normal conditions, is too wet this time of year for harvesting. Additional supply means the potential for depressed prices — good for the consumer, bad for landowners.

The drought actually benefited most row croppers this year, giving them ideal harvest conditions. The exception is forage and pasture land. Pastures and hayfields across the state were already suffering from perhaps the worst armyworm infestation in state history. The dry conditions are perfect for armyworm propagation.

Dr. Rocky Lemus, forage and pasture specialist at the Extension, said the dry conditions are also impacting production. Some landowners are foregoing an entire hay-cutting due to lack of production.

And, next year could be as bad. Lemus said he has received reports of land so dry and hard that tillage equipment cannot penetrate it, leaving fall forage planting in doubt.

“It’s the perfect storm,” Lemus said.

This has cattlemen doubly worried. The hot, dry weather causes cattle to eat less, thus putting on less weight. Sammy Blossom, executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, said producers are enjoying good prices, but the lack of forage and/or hay and the prospect of having to ship in hay from other states could run up input costs that stand at about $400 per head.

Some non-agriculture/forestry industries are feeling the wildfire/drought threat, too. Construction is allowed to keep building under the burn ban, but Buddy Edens, president of the Mississippi chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said his members have formed special “fire watch teams” to make guard against brushfires. And Perry Nations, head of the local chapter of the Association of General Contractors, said managers have to keep a close watch over crews, ensuring they don’t overheat and/or dehydrate.

In the meantime, the state’s 16,000-plus firefighters remain on high alert. Already strained, Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Ricky Davis is concerned that falling water tables will add yet another challenge.

“While we do not know if this (was) occurring during recent fires, rural firefighters do have the capabilities to sometimes draft (suck) water from static sources such as creeks or ponds,” Davis said. “Most of these places are identified in advance and are chosen because the water source is available at all times. But… it is conceivable that ponds or creeks could dry up enough so that they are no longer useful.”

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