Fire officials: Threat of catastrophic fire not over

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - Fire investigators are canvassing neighborhoods to find out who may be responsible for a woods fire that consumed 850 acres in Jackson County. Fountainebleau Fire Chief Michael Belton spotted the fire around noon on Saturday and was one of the first on the scene near Plymouth and Tapp Roads.

"I did see some people running from the woods. There were four teenagers running out of the woods as I was proceeding in the woods to get a better size up on the fire," said Chief Belton. "There were two four-wheelers coming down the well traveled path, also."

Chief Belton said four teens were riding on the two ATVs, and they nearly ran him over. Meanwhile, the Mississippi Forestry Commission is taking part in the investigation.

Coastal Fire Coordinator Randy Wilson said, "We've narrowed the general origin to some of the woods roads off of C.C. Camp Road and Plymouth Road. We looked at that this morning. We'll be doing some canvassing of the neighborhoods. See if anyone has information as to who those folks may have been."

"When you're that close to a fire, and it's that small size, you either know who did it or you have some information about it. So we'll be trying to track those folks down later on today and this week."

From a helicopter in the sky it's easy to see just how close a massive wildfire came to homes and to the businesses in the Sunplex Business Park. Yet amazingly not a single structure was touched by the flames. Firefighters say that is thanks to the teamwork of several agencies.

"We all train together, so when you arrive on something that turned out to be such a large scale as this, you're so familiar with the working procedures of each other," Chief Belton said. "The egos go out the window. This is not a one man show. This is going to be a team effort, and it really helps by training together."

Hot spots linger over the 850 charred acres. Firefighters are keeping a close watch on fire lanes and standing by with brush trucks and bulldozers. Officials say the threat of the fire re-igniting will continue for weeks because of falling pine needles.

"They will fall to the ground on top of some of the hot stumps or larger fuels that are still smoldering," said Wilson. "When those combustible needles fall down, it could re-burn in those areas. Depending on how large a track of pine trees are over it, it could be several acres that would re-burn and cause problems again."

As long as the drought continues, fire officials say another blaze could easily get out of hand and next time South Mississippi might not be so lucky.

Chief Belton said, "It could have been a lot worse. We were very fortunate. We lost no structures. We had no loss of life, but the potential was really high there. We were very, very fortunate."

"The dry weather conditions we're having right now, the drought we're in definitely supports the burn ban," Wilson said. "Fires like you saw Saturday is the reason we put burn bans in place just to try to protect the people."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say Saturday's fire burned an average of 100 acres an hour. Officials say anyone who sees a fire or even just smoke should immediately report it to authorities.

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