Staying Alert For Fire Dangers

Published 8:00 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wildfire surveillance has come a long way since the days of the ‘eye-in-the-sky’ towers.

     Now, Mississippi Forestry Commission dispatch offices take calls from citizens and police and send out firefighters to the area.

     There are five dispatch offices in Mississippi. The Southwest office, located in Brookhaven on Monticello Street, serves 21 counties.

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     “We get a list each month of the first responders in the counties for each day. Someone calls in a fire, we find out where and send out crews,” said Mark Sprague, the dispatch office supervisor.

     The dispatch office employs three others besides Sprague. Someone is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s important since timber is such a big industry in the state.

     Sprague said their busiest time is in February and March, when people are getting ready to plant gardens and go hunting. He said debris burning causes most of the fires they deal with, though some are from lightning and other causes.

     “Our worst fires were right after Hurricane Katrina,” said David Harper, an employee in the office. “There was so much debris on the ground.”

     Sprague said that although it usually takes the foresters only an hour or so to put out a fire, sometimes there is a longer wait.

     “Some of the counties don’t have that many people,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll have two or three fires out there waiting.”

     When there is more than fire, Sprague said they’ll sometimes call in units from other counties. Or if there are structures or homes in danger, they’ll call in the volunteer fire departments.

     “You prioritize it by the danger involved,” he said.

     But the volunteer departments can only help so much, which is why most fires are handled by the commission itself.

     “Our new trucks can’t go off the road,” said Harper, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter. “The forestry commission has the right equipment.”

     Aside from routing people to fires, the dispatch office also helps compile data on fires and they provide burn permits. They will also provide the fire weather forecast to anyone interested.

     To report a fire, call 888-823-3473.