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Highly-active wildfire in rural Copiah County (2015).

Wildfires like those seen in California possible in Mississippi?

By BECKY GILLETTE

The recent devastating camp fire-begun conflagration that killed 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes in California has created more awareness of the potential for devastating wildfires, said Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC) Fire Chief Randy Giachelli.

“The saddest part is that nearly nine out of 10 wildfires nationwide could have been prevented with proper care,” Giachelli said. “That is why we focus on a message of wildfire prevention in Mississippi. You can find wildfire prevention tips at https://www.mfc.ms.gov/wildfire-prevention. Call 1-833-MFC-FIRE to report a wildfire in Mississippi.”

While Mississippi hasn’t seen huge, devastating wildfires like those seen out West, Mississippi has the potential to see large, damaging wildfires.

“It all depends on the seasonal weather conditions, locations where wildfires occur, and how quickly containment can be reached,” Giachelli said. “Wildfires occur year-round in Mississippi. In fiscal year  2017, 2,318 wildfires burned 33,574 acres in Mississippi. MFC wildland firefighters saved 4,441 structures threatened by wildfire activity. Thirty-three structures were damaged or destroyed.”

Drought is one of the highest risk factors for wildfires. Giachelli said in fiscal 2016, Mississippi experienced widespread drought conditions on par with those seen in California.

“Gov. Phil Bryant even put a statewide burn ban into effect, due to the increased wildfire danger,” he said. “While drought conditions were more widespread in fiscal 2016, wind conditions were not as harsh. The MFC responded to and suppressed 1,916 wildfires that burned 31,370 acres in fiscal 2016. MFC wildland firefighters saved 2,073 structures threatened by wildfire activity while 38 structures were damaged or destroyed.”

Gov. Bryant put a partial burn ban in effect for north Mississippi in fiscal 2017. The MFC has not released fiscal 2018 numbers yet, but due to a lot of rain from hurricane activity in the Gulf, numbers are expected to be significantly lower.

Often, people who live in cities aren’t aware of these wildfires, as the wildfires take place in rural areas where the smoke is not visible from the road.

The MFC provides forest management assistance on non-federal public forestlands in Mississippi such as state forests and all forested 16th section public school trust lands. Giachelli said forest management activities used include prescribed burning, installing fire lanes/ fire breaks, and properly-timed thinning to mitigate hazardous fuel for wildfires. Fire lanes also provide access to the property in the event of a wildfire to help MFC wildland firefighters reach containment as quickly as possible.

Giachelli said there are a number of factors that contribute to the size and severity of wildfires, including drought conditions, wind, relative humidity, heat and terrain. Remote areas make it more difficult to contain the wildfire quickly.

There can also be challenges from what is called the “wildland urban interface.” As people build homes close to heavily wooded areas, it can increase the danger of homes being destroyed by wildfires.

The good news is that proper forest management techniques such as prescribed burning, which reduces fuel for wildfires, can greatly reduce the danger of wildfires.

“Prescribed burning is one of the most efficient and cost-effective tools available to foresters and landowners in the Southeast for understory management, fuel reduction, site preparation, wildfire risk reduction, and wildlife habitat improvement,” Giachelli said. “In the hands of a Certified Burn Manager, prescribed burning is a safe way to apply a natural process to manage forestland. The MFC actually offers public training that allows people to become Certified Burn Managers and safely apply this practice to their forestland (https://www.mfc.ms.gov/prescribed-burning-short-course).”

The fire chief also highly recommends hazard mitigation practices by communities, neighborhoods, and individuals. MFC has a FireWise program to give homeowners and community leaders with the information they need to help design, construct, landscape, and maintain homes or communities to withstand wildfires better.

“Proper forest management and hazard mitigation practices, such as those detailed in our FireWise program, are essential to protect homes and communities from wildfires,” he said.

This past year the majority of wildfires in Mississippi were caused by people burning debris.

“That means the majority of wildfires could have been prevented with proper care from individuals,” Giachelli said. “A small spark can start a large wildfire when conditions are dry and windy. The most important thing individuals can do to prevent wildfires is to avoid any outdoor burning on dry, windy days. Check your local weather forecast if you are unsure about drought and wind conditions. The wind carries embers long distances, causing new spot fires as far away as one-half mile from the burning area.”

When prescribed fire is used, fires are started deliberately in order to help manage ecosystems that are fire-dependent.

“An example of this is the longleaf pine ecosystem,” said Becky Stowe, director of forest programs for the Mississippi Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “This habitat has evolved with fire as a key element of it. These fires were started primarily by lightning strikes, but there are numerous accounts of native Americans who lit the woods on fire on a regular basis and early settlers did the same thing to promote new growth for the cattle and sheep.”

The longleaf pine trees are fire resistant and many of the other species found within this system rely on fire. Stowe said by doing prescribed fire on a regular basis, they reduce fuel loads on those preserves, which helps prevent catastrophic wildfires.

“We like to say that good fires prevent bad ones,” Stowe said. “Mississippi still has a strong fire culture and many people you talk to remember their grandfathers routinely doing controlled burns. Many private individuals still burn their woods yearly.”

How does this affect wildlife?  Stowe said with regular burning, the grasses and other plants within the longleaf pine ecosystem dominate the landscape instead of shrubs, providing lots of food for birds such as quail and other animals like gopher tortoises and deer.

“Our experience has shown that wildlife rebounds quickly after a prescribed fire,” she said.

The Nature Conservancy regularly burns around 6,000 acres in Mississippi and its fire crew helps partners like those at the Sandhill Crane Refuge with their prescribed burning, as well.

Precautions are taken to prevent prescribed burns from affecting neighboring properties.

“However, when people build homes near preserves that are burned regularly, we sometimes have to cease fire operations in that area,” Stowe said..”

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