Tristan Baurick and Faimon A. Roberts III
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Aug. 17—More than 135 wildfires have burned across Louisiana over the past week and many more are expected as the state grapples with a long spell of little rain and extremely high heat.
“We’ve got dry trees, dry grass, dry ground,” said Mike Strain, the state agriculture and forestry commissioner. “Get a little breeze pushing by and it’s the perfect scenario for wildfires.”
About 2,434 acres have been damaged by fire since the middle of last week. That’s about as much land burned during all of 2019. Last week’s fires caused an estimated $3.6 million in damage to crops, woodlands and buildings, according to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the state’s primary wildfire response agency.
At least 645 wildfires have burned in Louisiana this year, and there are more hot weeks — and likely more fires — ahead.
The state issued a burn ban on Aug. 7 after about a fifth of Louisiana’s 64 parishes had already prohibited outdoor burning. On Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency over the summer’s record-breaking heat wave.
“Wildfires have impacted much of the state,” Edwards said while announcing meetings this week with the state’s emergency managers to boost responses to wildfires and an uptick in heat-related illnesses. He said 16 heat-related deaths were confirmed by state health officials as of August 4.
Some of the largest fires have been in Sabine Parish. Three simultaneous blazes damaged more than 1,000 acres in the rural parish along the Texas line.
For Douglas Downs, chief of a south Sabine fire department, it’s something he’s never seen before.
“This is California-type stuff,” he said. “This isn’t Louisiana.”
In July, his department responded to 60 calls, twice as many as normal, and most of them were brush or woods fires, he said. This week, it’s been at least two woods fires per day.
“I don’t know when it’s going to stop,” he said.
‘Nothing but ash’
On Monday afternoon, a call came in about a fire near Corleyville southeast of Many, he said. While firefighters were working that fire, another call came in, forcing them to split up. Together, the fires burned several hundred acres and damaged 18 structures, including 10 houses, Downs said.
Anna Koonce’s house was destroyed by a wildfire that scorched several hundred acres in south Sabine. She said the fire was “practically in my backyard” when she got a call it was headed her way.
“We could feel the heat and see the fire,” she said. “It was moving so fast.”
She and a sister fled, but the house is “nothing but ash.”
Koonce, a lifelong resident of the area, had never seen anything like the fires that have popped up in Sabine last week.
“I’ve watched it on TV and never would have dreamed it would happen here,” he said.
Most Sabine fires are now contained, but hot, dry conditions could allow easy flare-ups.
In New Orleans East, a stubborn fire has blackened nearly 450 acres of marsh in Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge. After three weeks, the fire is about 75% contained, but not out yet.
“We had some high winds yesterday, so it’s burning fairly well today,” refuge manager Pon Dixon said Thursday. “And we’ve had some smoke out on Highway 11 this morning.”
Strain said the weather’s not changing for the better.
“Over the next two weeks, temperatures are still going to be extremely hot and extremely dry,” he said. “So we’re gearing up and continuing the firefight.”
His department has almost 160 full-time wildland firefighters and about 100 trucks, bulldozers and other units to fight wildfires. The Ag and Forestry Department also employs eight pilots who keep an eye out for fires.
The number of wildfires in Louisiana has been growing. Last year’s total of 1,416 wildfires was three times higher than 2021 and double the decade’s average. About 82,000 acres — an area the size of Philadelphia — has burned in Louisiana since 2013.
The fires are feasting on the vast amounts of timber and unlimited oxygen, and when they get into the tree canopies, they spread quickly. Amplifying the fires are large amounts of downed limbs and brush from recent hurricanes.
More than 80% of the state is experiencing an unusually dry summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And about half of the state is suffering from drought.
New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles are among the Louisiana cities that have broken temperature records in recent weeks. Last month tied for the warmest July ever in the New Orleans area, with average temps at 86.7. It was the second-warmest month on record behind August 2011, which had an average of 87.3 degrees. For Baton Rouge, July was the warmest month ever on record.
Strain, a Republican who won reelection this week after no one signed up to challenge him, said the drought is wreaking havoc on the state’s farms and forests. He said a key cause is climate change, which he acknowledged is driven at least in part by human activity. But bad decisions by individuals are too often what sets the parched landscape afire.
On Aug. 10, an abandoned campfire lit up part of Washington Parish and damaged structures. Forestry enforcement officers arrested 34-year-old Kenneth Beaubouef for setting the blaze.
Arson has been the cause of several recent blazes.
In late July, forestry officers arrested Steve Harrison, a 55-year-old resident of Independence, for starting a fire that damaged nine acres in St. Helena Parish.
Officers are searching for a suspected arsonist who they believe started six fires in the Natalbany area of Tangipahoa Parish.
Strain stressed that the carelessness of good people causes more fires than the purposeful acts of bad people.
“It can be caused by flicking a cigarette butt out the window while going down the highway,” he said. “Or if you’re pulling a trailer, it can be from a chain dragging and causing sparks.”
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