The summer’s drought has made lawns, woods and grassy areas into fire starters, creating ideal conditions for wildfires across Mississippi.
On Oct. 6, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued a statewide ban on all outdoor burning in response to "extremely dry conditions and fire danger." The ban will remain until the conditions improve and the danger is abated. This action came less than a week after the Mississippi Forestry Commission issued a statewide Wildland Fire Alert.
"Due to the current drought conditions and the predicted weather pattern for the next week, the fire danger rating for the state will be extremely high," the commission stated.
The state has also been under fire weather watches issued by the National Weather Service. Fire weather alerts are declared when very dry ground, vegetation and air persist in an area when strong and gusty winds are expected.
The majority of the state is in a moderate drought, as classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor, available through the National Integrated Drought Information System. This drought, combined with natural drying that occurs when plants get ready for winter, has placed most of the state at a high or very high risk of fire danger.
Glenn Hughes, forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said a fire can very easily start and spread in such conditions.
"People need to be aware that these are dangerous fire conditions," Hughes said. "And according to the weather forecast, there is no significant precipitation in the near future. We are 6-9 inches behind our normal rainfall for the year, and it will take more than a few showers to reduce the danger."
While Mississippi Forestry Commission personnel and local fire departments are the first lines of defense in a wildfire, Hughes said their resources are often stretched thin. On a dry, windy day, multiple fires can easily develop, overwhelming their ability to deal with the fires.
"Open burning is dangerous and strictly prohibited during this drought," Hughes said. "People who set fires, whether accidentally or on purpose, can be billed for the costs of damage to property and the cost of suppression. There is also a $100 to $500 fine for violating the burn ban."
A small fire can get out of control rapidly and become a large fire, threatening lives and property. Homes situated near woods are at greater risk of fire under the state’s current weather conditions.
Hughes warned those heading to the woods to be careful to avoid setting a fire. Fires can be started with just a match or a lit cigarette. He advised those who smoke to close their vehicle doors and windows and extinguish cigarettes in the ash tray.
Vehicles, too, can start a wildfire.
"Avoid parking a car or truck over dry leaves if possible. A catalytic converter on the underside of vehicles gets very hot, and fires have been started when vehicles are parked over dry, fine fuels such as tall grasses," Hughes said.