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Dry weather makes debris fires unsafe
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Current dry weather makes burning debris a potentially lethal hazard, especially coupled with windy conditions that help spread fire at an alarming rate.
"The southern part of the state is particularly dry, so people should avoid burning debris at all," said Glenn Hughes, a forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. "The fuel is there and ready to go up -- if a spark gets away from you, the wind can move it very quickly."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued a warning April 1 to the public to be aware of the dry, windy conditions prevalent throughout March, which could increase the number of wildfires that have already occurred in the state. The number of wildfires rose from a March average of 538 to 1,098 this March. Statewide, 21,139 acres have burned, compared to the March average of 7,937 acres.
"Any rain will help the situation, but several days of a nice, drenching rain will be more beneficial than a lot of rain in a short period of time," Hughes explained. "We need to allow time to recharge the moisture in the vegetation."
Hughes said the state is in the process of "greening up," meaning vegetation is gaining moisture content and becoming more difficult to burn. This usually results in a reduction in the number of wildfires.
"But the dry summer conditions that will soon follow cause the vegetation to lose moisture, which can cause the same problem with wildfires again," Hughes said.
Hughes said when weather conditions become too severe, county boards of supervisors will often implement burn bans, which are publicized through the local media. The Mississippi Forestry Commission's Web site also contains information on existing burn bans.
Three Mississippi counties currently have outdoor burn bans issued by their respective boards of supervisors: Harrison, Jackson and George counties.
Many homeowners take advantage of the spring weather to conduct clean-up activities that often involve burning lawn debris. MSU Extension forestry professor Bob Daniels advised holding off on that spring cleaning until after the area experiences a suitable rainfall.
"Also don't be careless about tossing cigarette butts out the car window," Daniels advised. "This is a very common way forest fires get started."
Several state laws address wildfire issues, and the Mississippi Forestry Commission is charged with punishing those who violate burning laws. Section 97-15-29 speaks directly to the issue of littering highways and private property with trash or other substances that are likely to cause fire. A person convicted of this violation faces a fine of up to $250.
Andy Londo, an MSU-Extension forestry professor, teaches a course that allows forestry and wildlife students to become certified in conducting prescribed burns. He said the Mississippi Prescribed Burning Act of 1992 outlines four steps that must be taken when planning a burn.
"First, a certified prescribed burn manager must be on-site during the burn. Second, you must have a prescribed burning plan notarized at least one day before the burn," Londo explained. "On the day of the burn, you must obtain a permit from the Forestry Commission, which will take into account weather conditions on that day."
Finally, the prescribed burn must be in the public's interest. Following these guidelines can ease liability issues if something does go wrong and the burn gets out of control.
"There are two levels of liability: simple negligence and gross negligence. Simple negligence means you have taken every precaution you can but something still goes wrong. The penalty for simple negligence is paying actual damages -- such as reimbursing a neighbor for their tool shed that was burned -- plus a fine of up to $150," Londo explained.
Gross negligence, however, means a person failed to follow the recommended guidelines or violated a burn ban. The penalty for gross negligence is reimbursement for actual damages, up to a $500 fine and up to three months in the county jail.
"The level of negligence is based upon a jury's decision," Londo said.
A person convicted of forest arson could face up to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Whether intentional or not, the person responsible for starting a fire will also be liable to the injured person for any destroyed buildings, fences, trees, timber and grass, and damage to the range.