Tristan Baurick – The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Dec. 4—The months-long battle against hundreds of wildfires across Louisiana has made clear that the state is ill-prepared for hotter, drier summers producing multiple simultaneous blazes that ravage forests, imperil communities and stretch the state’s firefighting capabilities beyond the limit.
That’s the message state Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain is sending to lawmakers as he lobbies for a substantial boost in funding for Louisiana’s largest wildfire fighting agency.
“There’s no other option,” Strain said. “We have to fight fires, and to do that we have to spend the money.”
His request is still in flux, but in recent week’s he’s offered estimates that range from an $25 million to $43 million. The Agriculture and Forestry Department’s typical wildfire response budget is about $12 million per year.
“But we expended three times our annual budget for fire fighting over the last few months,” he said.
Strain’s wish list is loaded with expensive equipment the state had to call in from other states, including planes, water tankers and dozens of bulldozers. He also wants at least 60 more firefighters to bolster the 150 overworked firefighters his agency sent to dozens of fires across the state.
In August, during the height of this year’s wildfire season, more than 60,000 acres across the state were charred by fires. That adds up to three times as much land burned in one month than all of last year, and 13 times as much as 2021 and 20 times as much as 2020, according to state records.
Battling more than 1,400 wildfires this year was overwhelming for state and local fire agencies.
Evacuations were called for parts of Caddo, Sabine and Vernon parishes, and all of Merryville, a town of about 1,000 people in Beauregard Parish. Dozens of homes burned, several firefighters were injured and at least two people died from wildfires this year.
In the New Orleans area, weeks of wildfire smoke caused highway and school closures and a spike in hospital visits by asthma sufferers. It also contributed to several vehicle crashes that killed eight people and injured dozens of others when the smoke combined with dense fog.
Economic impacts include about $71 million worth of damaged timber, according to the Louisiana State University AgCenter.
The statewide burn ban that had been in place since August was lifted late last month, but Strain cautioned that Louisiana remains in a drought and residents should use caution when burning outdoors.
Wildfire risk in Louisiana is expected to increase by 25% over the next two decades, according to recent estimates by LSU. But the magnitude of property damage will grow by 101% because development is increasingly targeting wildfire-prone areas at the edges of cities.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has said more training and equipment are needed to address growing wildfires risks.
“This is the new normal with climate change,” he said in August.
Gov.-elect Jeff Landry, who takes office next month, has declined to comment on proposals to increase funding for Ag and Forestry and boost wildfire training at local fire departments.
Basic wildfire training hasn’t been offered in Louisiana, and few firefighters have been sent out of state to get it.
Strain said Louisiana will still rely on federal and out-of-state help during large-scale flareups like the 30,000-acre Tiger Island Fire in Beauregard. But the state should be able to “hold the line” for at least five days.
That’s getting tougher as his agency’s older equipment gets increasingly heavy use, especially its bulldozers, which were deployed to cut lines that halted the spread of several fires this year.
Strain is hoping for enough money to buy 25 more bulldozers, three single-engine tanker airplanes for water drops, six brush trucks with water tanks, six large water tanker trucks, a diesel tanker truck and a mobile mixing plant for producing fire retardant.
The added fuel needs for the agency could top $1 million annually.
Adding 60 more Ag and Forestry wildland firefighters could cost $4 million per year, Strain estimated.
“We are sole source of some this equipment and expertise in the state because we are the state’s wildfire agency,” he said. “We have to be ready with whatever we have. When the fire alarm rings we have to go.”
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