BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — One of the largest wildfires in Louisiana history continues to burn through land and threaten rural communities, which are used to flooding and hurricanes this time of year rather than drought and blazes.
Louisiana has had an unprecedented wildfire season as dry conditions and extreme heat persist. The rapid spread of fires has been made worse by pine plantation forests, blown down by recent hurricanes, fueling the blazes. This month alone, there have been about 600 wildfires across the state, and officials say there will likely be more in the weeks ahead.
“This is not done. We expect a dry September. So we got to be prepared for this and all work together until the rain comes … and then we can get back to life,” Mike Strain, the commissioner for Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said during a news conference Tuesday.
The state’s largest active blaze, the Tiger Island Fire in southwestern Louisiana, doubled in size over the weekend, growing to 33,000 acres (13,350 hectares) — accounting for more acres of burned land than the state usually has in an entire year. As of Tuesday morning, the fire was 50% contained.
The wildfire forced the entire town of Merryville — a rural area just five miles (eight kilometers) east of the Texas border, with a population of 1,200 people — to evacuate. No injuries or deaths have been reported, but at least 20 structures, including barns and homes, have been damaged or destroyed.
More than a thousand fire personnel, some sent from Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, fought wildfires across the state Tuesday, which also marked 18 years since Hurricane Katrina and two years since Hurricane Ida made landfall in the state.
As firefighters extinguish or make progress on the containment of one fire, dozens of others ignite a day. Wildfires have burned an average of 8,217 acres (3,325 hectares) of land in Louisiana per year over the past decade. So far this year, 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) have burned.
Officials say many blazes could have been prevented if residents adhered to a statewide burn ban that has been in effect since early August. In Beauregard Parish, the area where the Tiger Island Fire continues to rage, more than 20 citations were issued Monday for people violating the burn ban, Gov John Bel Edwards said during a news conference Tuesday.
“There simply is not an excuse to be burning anything outside right now,” Edwards said.
While nearly all of Louisiana is abnormally dry for this time of year, half of the state is facing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, the state has faced scorching triple-digit temperatures this summer. Earlier this month, Edwards declared a state of emergency because of extreme heat.
Edwards has pointed to climate change — driven by the burning of fossil fuels, by deforestation and by certain agricultural practices, which scientists say lead to more and prolonged bouts of extreme weather, including hotter temperatures — for conditions making the risk of wildfires unusually high.
Edwards, who surveyed damage from wildfires Tuesday, said that increased wildfires may be the “new normal” and said that the state will need to invest more time, effort, training and personnel to “more readily and adequately respond” to wildfires in the future.