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Rain does little to lessen Louisiana wildfire risk

An image of a wildfire in Beauregard Parish from drone video taken Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.
Louisiana State Police
An image of a wildfire in Beauregard Parish from drone video taken Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.

This story was originally published on the Louisiana Illuminator.

Intense downpours brought relief from high temperatures Monday to some parts of Louisiana, but officials say it did little to reduce the threat of wildfires that have now claimed more than 60,000 acres across the state.

With more extreme heat and minimal rain in the forecast, crews combatting the blazes anticipate the risk to persist, especially as authorities continue to encounter people ignoring Louisiana’s statewide burn ban.

Agents with the state agricultural department issued 20 citations Monday for burn ban violations in the Beauregard Parish area, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday. He traveled to the parish to check progress in containing the Tiger Isle fire near Merryville. It alone is responsible for roughly half the burned acreage in Louisiana.

At a midday news conference, Edwards said “critically dangerous fire conditions” remain, which didn’t see near the rain other parts of the state did Monday afternoon and evening.

“The vast majority of that did not fall in southwest Louisiana, and the amount that did fall here was not sufficient to materially change the conditions,” the governor said. “No one should label under the misapprehension that we’re back to normal in Louisiana — far from it.”

In August alone, emergency crews so far have responded to 600 reports of brush and wildfires.

Steve Parrish of the U.S. Forest Service said Monday’s rain did provide enough of a reprieve for firefighters to gain ground on the Tiger Isle fire, but he and other officials stressed a long-term threat remains.

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who also went to Beauregard Parish, said there is ample fuel for continued wildfires on Louisiana forest floors. More than a million acres of timber lies on the ground from hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Hurricane Ida two years ago, he said.

Strain said first responders are still dealing with a “very volatile situation,” with high temperatures expected to resume and a dry September ahead.

“We are not out of this,” he said. “This is a long-duration event.”

Historically, Edwards called the ongoing wildfires the largest Louisiana has seen since World War II. Strain said the fires in 1942 claimed 1.5 million acres, and blazes in 1924 burned 5 million acres. By comparison, the losses so far in 2023 account for 1% of what Louisiana lost nearly 100 years ago.

According to the governor, there are 400 National Guard members, 300 personnel with an agriculture department task force and 200 members of the U.S. Forest Service on the ground in Louisiana to help bring wildfires under control. That number doesn’t include parish and local emergency crews who have been involved from the onset.

Edwards credited the effort of local firefighters for limiting structural damage from the fires, which have claimed roughly two dozen properties.

Debris burns have been blamed for two deaths in Louisiana this month; an 84-year-old woman perished Sunday in St. Tammany Parish, and a 72-year-old man in Washington Parish lost his life Aug. 17.

In addition to the statewide burn ban, there is also a prohibition against prescribed agricultural burns until further notice.

All mandatory evacuations from the wildfires have been canceled, although the governor said residents in these areas should remain alert in case they are forced to leave home again.

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