Louisiana Agriculture Secretary Mike Strain views smoldering trees from a portion of the Tiger Island fire in Beauregard Parish on Aug. 23, 2023. (Jenn Finley/La. Dept. of Agriculture and Forestry)
The Louisiana official who leads the state’s wildfire fighting efforts says he will ask the legislature for more resources next year, including additional personnel and a tanker plane that can drop water on blazes. His pending request comes as emergency crews attempt to contain major fires in southwest Louisiana under persisting drought conditions.
In the meantime, Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain and Gov. John Bel Edwards urged citizens Wednesday to pay heed to the statewide burn ban and discouraged outdoor barbecues during the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
Both officials spent Tuesday in DeRidder, the Beauregard Parish seat just miles away from the state’s largest wildfire. The Tiger Island fire, which consumed more than 30,000 acres of woodlands, is largely contained, but firefighters were still knocking down hotspots to keep fires from reigniting. The Ida fire, a separate blaze southeast of Leesville in Vernon Parish, was a bigger threat Tuesday but over a much smaller, easier to manage area, Strain said.
Even with two consecutive days of rainfall in parts of Louisiana, the governor and agriculture commissioner stressed that the danger of additional wildfires is not over — and won’t be anytime soon. Strain said a good 3 to 4 inches is needed in order to soak the ground to the point where the fire risk is negated. Without it, conditions are prime for another large fire to erupt.
“It is literally a tinderbox,” Strain said.
Trees knocked down during hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Ida in 2021 are fueling the fires, officials said. Asked whether there are any mitigation efforts available to reduce the fire risk, Strain said controlled prescribed burns to clear forest floors are the typical method. But because of the prolonged dry conditions in Louisiana, prescribed burns are prohibited indefinitely statewide.
After the hurricanes, the federal government offered timber farmers reimbursement to clean up fallen trees and replant new ones at a rate of $400 to $500 per acre, Strain said. But because farmers didn’t have the money to spend up front, few participated in the program.
Fires on the scale of those currently impacting Louisiana might not occur every year, Strain said, but he anticipates annual emergencies will quickly deplete his department’s manpower as well as fire personnel and equipment at local levels. The agriculture department has deployed all 155 of its firefighters for the Tiger Island fire.
There are a total of 1,200 people currently on the ground in response to wildfires, Strain said. The bulk of them are local volunteer firefighters and first-responders from outside Louisiana who are part of a U.S. Forestry Service regional task force. National Guard units from Louisiana and neighboring states have provided the helicopters and airplanes that have comprised the aerial components used to bring fires under control.
Strain said he will ask the legislature next year to provide money so his department can purchase air tankers, bulldozers, brush trucks and additional equipment.
“We need to augment what we have and increase personnel,” he said. “Because I would like to tell you that next year we won’t face this, but I’m telling you next year we need to be prepared for it.”
The governor made it clear that while the statewide burn ban does not apply to barbecues, he would prefer that residents not use their grills over the holiday weekend, which also marks the start of college football and dove hunting seasons.
“We do know that, historically, a lot of fires start that way, and we just can’t have more fires than absolutely necessary,” Edwards said.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has banned all forms of open flame cooking for Saturday’s football game against Northwestern State, the Acadiana Advocate reported. Generators will still be allowed in tailgating areas as long as they are elevated off the ground.
Throughout the state, fires have destroyed between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of forestland, according to state officials.
Wildfires were reported Wednesday in St. Landry and Terrebonne parishes.
The St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office reported a grass fire outside of Eunice grew out of control and spread to nearby structures.
A marsh fire near Schriever caused smoke to fill large portions of northern Terrebonne Parish, according to the The Courier. A local fire official said several canals cut through the area prevent them from accessing it, but they also prevent the fire from spreading. No buildings faced any risk.
Two people have died in separate debris fires in St. Tammany and Washington parishes this month. The number of structures loss to fire in Louisiana remains relatively low, with just over 20 so far.
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