Firefighters staying busy in new year

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 6, 2006

Dry conditions, plenty of flammable materials and minimalhumidity are behind a busy first week of the year for areafirefighters.

In the first two days of January alone, the Mississippi ForestryCommission has suppressed 689 wildfires that have burned more than6,408 acres, according to commission totals.

On Monday in the 18-county Southwest District, crews respondedto 32 wildfires that consumed 595 acres. Three of those firesoccurred in Lincoln County, including a fire in Enterprise thatconsumed 160 acres of forest and pastureland.

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“No one ever sets a debris fire thinking it will get away fromthem, but with all the fuel as dry as it is now, along with the lowhumidity, all the conditions are there to allow a fire to get outof control,” said Dale Brown, public outreach forester for the MFC.”It was high winds mainly on Monday.”

Of the 32 fires in the Southwest District Monday, 23 were foundto be escaped debris fires. Nine were listed as “incendiary.”

“In some cases it might be extreme to call it arson, but if thecause is obviously human, it gets thrown in the incendiarycategory,” Brown said.

Humans cause 98 percent of the wildfires in Mississippi, Brownsaid. The largest single cause is debris burning, which includeshousehold rubbish.

“The problem is, like it was Monday, people burning when it istoo windy to burn,” said Randy Chapin, area forester for theMFC.

Wind gusts reached up to 35 miles per hour across the regionMonday.

“That’s much too high to be burning. Winds of three to fivemiles per hour are usually OK, but 35 is much too high,” Chapinsaid.

Lawrence County Fire Coordinator Robert Patterson said volunteerfirefighters have suppressed a minimum of three wildfires a daycountywide. Most of those were caused by debris burning.

Volunteer firefighters are an invaluable aid in fightingwildfires, Brown said.

Many wildfires are not included in the MFC statistics becausethey are handled by volunteer firefighters. The MFC is only calledto respond to wildfires that penetrate forests or that are toolarge for the volunteers to suppress.

Lincoln County Fire Coordinator Clifford Galey said countyvolunteer fire departments have responded to at least five to sixwildfires a day for the past two weeks. He said they responded tofive wildfires in a five-hour period Wednesday.

Galey said he would meet with MFC officials today or Friday todiscuss the situation and to make a burn ban recommendation toLincoln County supervisors when they meet Monday.

“Even without a burn ban, I strongly recommend people don’t burnright now,” he said.

In Lawrence County, MFC crews have been called on two fires.Patterson said the county is under a indefinite burn ban.

“We’ll stay under the ban until we get enough rain to lift it,”he said.

Chapin, however, said the only county under an official burn banin the Southwest District is Hinds County. He added that did notmean conditions were good to be burning, but many counties arehesitant to issue a ban with the tree-planting season running fromnow to March.

The Brookhaven MFC office issued several burning permitsWednesday to foresters preparing to plant trees.

“That hasn’t been the problem,” Chapin said, adding the permitswere issued to people with experience in burning underbrush andsite preparation. “They don’t burn on windy days.”

Brown and Chapin both believe stronger enforcement when burnbans are in effect would deter some people from burning debris whenconditions are dangerous. A fine of up to $500 can be leviedagainst a person burning debris during a ban.

“I think probably until there is some enforcement, people willcontinue to do it,” Brown said.

Chapin agreed.

“I think it would help a lot with a burning ban in effect toissue citations. It might wake some people up,” he said. “Thereweren’t any citations issued during the last ban, although I knowpeople were burning.”