Keeping Fires Under Control

Published 8:00 pm Friday, June 22, 2012

Wildfires in the west have people all over the country wondering what would happen if a fire started where they live.

     In Mississippi, the state Forestry Commission knows just what to do.

     Randy Chapin is the district forester for the southwest district, which includes Lincoln County, as well as Adams, Amite, Franklin, Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Lawrence, Marion, Pike, Walthall and Wilkinson counties. He said many factors play a role in why this area has fewer fires than those out west, including land ownership.

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     Chapin said that because most of the land in Mississippi is privately owned, and the forests here are maintained better than the mostly federally owned land in the Colorado fires.

     “Good timber management is important,” he said. “They (those out west) don’t prescribe burn or thin it out.”

     According to Chapin, prescribed burning not only helps burn off the underbrush that fuels fires, it also gets rid of the old trees and plants, which leaves younger, healthier plants for animals to eat.

     “Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem,” Chapin said. “The bad part of it is smoke.”

     Chapin said his district doesn’t get to do as many prescribed burns as he’d like, because of the smoke.

     “We have to have a burning plan and it has to fall under certain parameters,” he said. “Smoke can’t block the roads.”

     But Chapin said the roads are also a big part of why fires are less severe here than other places.

     “We’ve got a good road base,” he said. “You can cut (the fire) off before it gets too big.”

     Another part of timber management Chapin said was important is thinning, which he said helps keep the forest healthy.

     “Thick and stagnant trees are more susceptible to fires,” he said. “You cut back the old trees, it helps the remaining trees to grow.”

     But no amount of management will stop fires completely. According to the commission, humans start more than 98 percent of wildfires.

     “The fire season is about November 15 to April 15,” Chapin said. “Everybody gets spring fever. They start getting out and getting their yards cleaned up.”

     Chapin said most fires are started because people are burning debris and an ember gets away from them. He said some things to remember are to not burn on windy days and to keep a water hose nearby.

     “Get the fire weather forecast from us,” he said. “We’ll tell you the humidity levels, wind speed and direction, temperature, etc.”

     The weather plays a big part in how many fires there are each year, said Chapin. Humidity and rainfall levels are the two biggest players.

     “When we have low humidity, like 20 percent or less, it dries up pretty quickly here,” Chapin said. “Fires start on the side of the road more often then, because of people flicking their cigarette butts or matches out of the car.”

     Chapin said the average fire in this area is about 12 acres, and he said there are usually a few fires every week. There have been fewer fires this year than normal, thanks to rain levels, but Chapin isn’t complaining.

     “It helps our budget,” he said. “We save on gas and upkeep for our vehicles and equipment.”

     And with the summer heat, fewer fires means less stress on firefighters.

     “Suppression is harder because of the heat and the humidity,” Chapin said. “It’s a lot more dangerous for them to suppress the fires.”

     Chapin said another thing that makes it harder for the Forestry Commission is the lack of personnel. He said that in the 1990s, there were about 1,400 employees. Now there are about 450. And with only two units in Lincoln County, fighting wildfires takes longer.

     “Our response time has greatly increased,” he said. “We couldn’t manage without the volunteer fire departments. They protect the homes until we get there and get it under control.”

     And with more and more homes popping up in the county’s outlying areas, the danger increases every time there’s a fire.

     “We haven’t had that big of a problem here, but we could have one pretty quick,” Chapin said.

     One thing the commission does to help prevent wildfires is employ the Firewise Program. Chapin said doing things like keeping a defensible area of about 30 feet clear around your home helps, and provides firefighters a place to work.

     “You also shouldn’t grow trees right next to your home, and don’t use combustible materials to build,” he said. “Use common sense. That would probably solve a lot of our fires.”