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Weeds, fire ‘unwelcome guests’

>As the summer dry season approaches, fires are posing moreof a threat to homeowners and the cogongrass weed is a growingmenace across the state, Mississippi Forestry Commission officialssaid Tuesday during a program at the Lincoln County Multi-UseFacility.

“Both of these are unwelcome guests,” MFC Firewise CoordinatorDale Brown told audience members. “You don’t want either one cominginto your yard.”

Firewise is a national program to educate and encourage peopleto take steps to prevent fires. The program focuses on landscapingpractices, home materials and construction and otheractivities.

Brown said 50 homes have been lost in Mississippi in the lastthree years due to fires. Citing population trends, Brown said asmore people out of the city, more homes are being built in thecountry.

“We’d like people to do that in a safe manner,” Brown said.

Brown sounded a note of caution about current year fires. SinceJan. 1, MFC reported 26 fires affecting 789 acres in Lincoln Countyand a total of 178 fires burning 4414 acres across the 14-countysouthwestern district.

“They look like they’re shaping up to be worse than in 2000,”Brown said.

Brown said 2000 had the highest number of fire occurrences inlast the five years. Drought-like conditions that year contributedto fires every month.

In 2000, there were 1,118 fires impacting 14,895 acres in the14-county district. Statewide, MFC resources were used to battle6,355 fires that affected 77,614 acres.

“They’re generally short-lived events, but there are plenty ofthem,” Brown said about the nature of the fires.

Among causes, Brown said fires resulting from human incidentsmade up the large majority.

Brown said 42 percent were classified as incendiary or arsonwhile 40 percent were attributed to debris burning. Less than 1percent were due to lightning strikes.

“It has to get really dry for lightning fires to ignite,” Brownsaid.

Also during Tuesday’s program, more than 100 attendees werebriefed on increasing problems due to cogongrass.

Relating the weed to the previous topic, Sandra McKay, directorof renewing rural resources with Southwest Mississippi ResourcesConservation and Development, said the presence of cogongrassdoubles the fire hazard around homes. She said it produces anintense heat and can burn at up to 850 degrees.

“It has been called the perfect weed,” McKay said, citing itsability to grow in a wide variety of conditions. “This weed hasdevastated southeast Mississippi.”

Cogongrass came to the U.S. in 1912 when it was brought in toMobile Bay, Ala., while being used as a packing material. McKayintroduced a video, produced in George, Stone and Hancock counties,featuring farmers and others affected by the weed.

In Mississippi in 1970, cogongrass had been found in 19counties. Today, the weed is in 50 counties. Officials fear thespread of cogongrass could be worse than kudzu, a weed originallyintended for erosion control along roads that has overtaken manyother areas.

MFC Forester Howard Stogner said cogongrass has been found intwo spots in southern Lincoln County along Highway 583. He saidaffected landowners are in their second year of spraying to try toget rid of the weed.

Echoing comments from from officials in the video, Stogner saidlandowners must be vigilant in searching for the weed and trying toprevent its spreading. Repeated applications of herbicides Arsenaland Roundup over several years were among control measurescited.

“It’s time to get ahead of it and not behind it,” Stognersaid.

The cogongrass message hit home with many in the audience.

“We need to get on board, look for it and see that it doesn’tget like it is down south,” said Lawrence County resident DavidCrosby.

Bogue Chitto resident Dorothy Moak mentioned that the cogongrasshas been used as ornamental grass in some cases. Fearing futurenegative effects, she indicated people should be careful about whatthey use in the yards and around their homes.

“We don’t know what it’s going to do to us later on,” Moaksaid.