Mississippi Public Broadcasting

Foresters request out-of-state aid amid overactive fire season, flash drought

By Michael McEwen

Since August 1, nearly 900 wildfires have burned more than 15,000 acres across Mississippi, challenging previously established notions of wildfire activity in the state and pushing resources and the workforce to the point of exhaustion. 

The outbreak of fires – which weather forecasters and responders alike owe to extreme drought conditions over the past several months – led Mississippi to request both equipment and personnel from neighboring states for the first time ever.

That aid was provided through Mississippi’s membership in two wildland fire compacts, where states sharing a geographic region enter into an agreement to pool and share forest fire fighting staff and resources. 

“I've got wildland firefighters that have been fighting fire in Mississippi for 30 years, and some of them have made some comments along the lines of they don't know if they've ever seen it this dry down in their area,” said Russell Bozeman, state forester at the Mississippi Forest Commission. 

Because of Mississippi's geography, the state is in an interesting position when discussing fire compacts, he says. Its central location places it in both the South Central and Southeastern Wildland Fire Compacts, founded in 1953 and 1954 respectively. 

Last week, Florida’s Forest Service provided engine and bulldozer teams to help combat a number of large wildfires in southern Mississippi, and more help is expected from neighboring Alabama and Tennessee, as well as South Carolina, through a clearinghouse system utilized by both compacts.  

Bozeman says they've faced issues with the supply chain sourcing of technology and other parts to repair the equipment used to contain wildland fires. 

The already unusually busy fire season has also had a profound effect on those responding to them. 

“There's only so long somebody can stay on call 24 hours a day and fight fire – those people have to have rest. Otherwise, it becomes a significant safety concern. So from the personnel standpoint, we've actually brought in wildland firefighting resources from out of state to assist us to give our folks on the ground some needed rest,” said Bozeman. “We've all been dealing with the wildfire issue for quite some time now.”

Part of the reason this fire season has taken such a toll on the MFC and other partners’ ability to respond to wildland fires is the erratic nature of the fires they’re fighting. Increasingly dry conditions since August 1, the fifth-driest August since records began in 1895, have left very little moisture in forests, along roads and even in the soil. 

Bozeman says this has increased both the amount of fires started from innocuous events and how quickly they spread, making them more challenging to contain. 

“If you've driven down the roads and you see big black areas on the side of the road, you know somebody thumped out a cigarette butt or there were chains dragging from a trailer down the road. Then with the wind, it pushes it through the grass on the side of the road. It gets into a forest or brush or grassland, and it's off to the races,” he said. 

“And then once the fire gets established and it makes it to that wood line, the fire behavior we're seeing is very erratic and very explosive. So once it gets into this dry vegetation, especially if it's ladder fuels, the fire will get high above the ground and start running through the vegetation, which is extremely difficult to try to suppress. You’ve got to try to bring the fire back down to the ground where you can fight it.” 

Such conditions have been especially prevalent in southern Mississippi, which has been much drier even than other drought-stricken regions of the state. It is also more susceptible to sea breeze blowing inland from the Gulf of Mexico. 

Fires ranging from the coast to as far north as Scott County have burned for a number of weeks, at times starting back after firefighting crews believed they had them contained. 

“The fire will burn through roots or debris that's underground, whatever the case may be. It stays burning underneath the ground, so we might get around it with our bulldozers and our backfires and get the fire contained and suppressed,” said Bozeman. “But what we're seeing is that two days later, the fire that's in the ground makes its way back up on top of the ground.” 

Because of those conditions, says Bozeman, several very large fires – ranging from 500 to more than 1,000 acres – have defined this early fall fire season along the coast and southern Mississippi.

“This is more extreme of a drought than I can remember,” said David Cox, lead forecaster at the Weather Service of Jackson for the past 11 years. “I don’t remember it being this dry for such a long period of time, and I don’t remember seeing soil so parched and cracked.” 

In daily meetings between the National Weather Service and MFC dating back to August, forecasters began to refer to the abnormally dry conditions as a “flash drought,” defined by Cox as the rapid onset of a drought where precipitation has virtually shut off in most areas of the state. 

“At least the last two to three months, we’re running 6-8 inches below average as a state, with some areas at 8-12 inches below. Some spots are only getting 5-10% of what is normal, some spots at most 25% of what’s normal. And until we get a very good soaking rain or quite a few we’re not going to see a big dent in these conditions,” Cox said.

According to NWS data, almost all of Mississippi’s 2.9 million residents are living under some level of drought conditions, with 24 of 82 counties actively under United States Department of Agriculture Drought and Disaster Designations. 

That allows for farmers and other agricultural producers – especially those involved with livestock, farm-raised fish and honeybees – affected by the drought to apply for federal assistance covering losses. 

“The ongoing drought in Mississippi has caused significant loss in forage availability. I’ve heard from so many livestock producers who are being forced to either suffer tremendous feed and transportation expenses, or to sell their cattle because they can’t afford to keep them,” said United States Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee as well as the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Aside from responding to wildland fires, Mississippi’s Forestry Commission also manages nearly 500,000 acres of state-owned forest, the majority of which is owned by 16 school boards across Mississippi who receive funding from revenue generated by timber sales. Bozeman estimates the MFC generated $10 million in timber revenue for those school boards last year. 

With such a large increase, and ongoing threat, of wildland fires across the state, he worries what the impact could be on state forests moving forward – including the nearly $13 billion a year timber industry. 

“From a forest health perspective, what we're concerned with primarily are going to be younger stands. If you harvested your timber and replanted this past winter, we are going to have to go back and check those seedlings to see if they survived. So you have some property that may have to get replanted again because of the drought, which from a timber supply standpoint is not the issue – the issue is going to be the cost to the landowner,” said Bozeman. 

“The biggest concern especially in pine stands is not necessarily the drought itself, but the drought creating stress on the trees. That, in turn, allows that tree to be more susceptible to insects and disease, and those effects from the drought won't be known for a while,” he said.  

When under such a drought, pine stands are especially vulnerable to the Southern Pine Beetle, whose presence in a stand of trees may not show up for some time and is often described as the most destructive forest pest in the South. 

“The effects of this drought in mature stands might not show its true impact for multiple years. Trees are very resilient and so the damage caused today may not actually show up in a given stand for several years. So we'll just have to watch them and see,” said Bozeman.