Be careful: March is a peak month for wildfires

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

Monday’s off-and-on showers would seem to deny the idea, but March is, historically, the month for Mississippi’s greatest risk of wildfires.
The headline-grabbing wildfires of the mountain West usually occur in summer and fall. But in the Mid-South, the presence of frost-killed vegetation combines with frequent windy days, periods of low humidity and increased outdoor activity to prompt the declaration of March as the state’s Wildfire Prevention Month.
“Typically in Mississippi, the weather conditions each year include 52-55 inches of rainfall with hot summers” when grass is green, said George Byrd, an education forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission. Early fall – September and October – can be warm with mid-50 percent to 60 percent humidity.
“Normally in March the cold fronts contain some rain, but one or two weeks during the month the humidity drops to 30 to 40 percent, with temperatures rising to 60 to 70 degrees, with no rainfall for 10-14 days,” he added.
Last year was a rare exception, when an intensely hot summer and a desperately dry fall in many areas culminated with the first statewide burn ban since 2000.
Since July 1, the state has had more than 90 percent of its average number of wildfires, with possibly the busiest few weeks still ahead.
Because more than 87 percent of the wildfires in Mississippi in Fiscal Year 2010 were caused by debris burning or by incendiary-arson, Byrd said, there’s a great opportunity for prevention. The Forestry Commission has provided wildfire education to schoolchildren for decades, he said, but adult education for the general public is harder to deliver.
Mississippi State University Extension Service offers timber management courses for landowners, including use of prescribed burning to remove fuel from timber stands before it reaches critical levels. The Forestry Commission’s Firewise program also alerts homeowners on the edge of wild areas how to protect their homes.
One way the general public is involved is through reporting unattended or uncontrolled outdoor fires via the 911 system. The ubiquity of cell phones and GPS devices essentially gives firefighters eyeballs everywhere, eliminating the need for manned towers.
Another is to take personal responsibility for safe burning.
“Many landowners will be turkey hunting this spring, cleaning off old garden spots, clearing land hit by storms … and executing prescribed burns under pine stands,” Byrd said. “They can take precautions by calling their local district MFC offices to get a burning permit or to make our agency aware of attempts to burn on their property.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.