Dry Conditions Keep Firefighters Busy In Mississippi

Unusually dry early spring weather is keeping firefighters busy in south Mississippi, but officials say winter provided enough rainfall to keep Delta planting on schedule.

The Mississippi Forestry Commission has been taking firefighters from other parts of the state to relieve to those working in the south, said commission information officer Kent Grizzard.

"For the past five weeks, we've practically been running 24/7 in south Mississippi. We've been shuffling our crews because they are tired and need rest,'' Grizzard said Tuesday.

Mississippi climatologist Charles Wax said March and April are usually the wettest months for the state, but rainfall was 1 1/2 inches below normal in March.

"During the last week in March it was drier than normal over the entire state,'' Wax said. "Reports show there was a small amount of rain in the upper Delta towns of Charleston and Tunica, which is unusual for March.''

At the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, agriculture officials aren't bothered by the dry weather.

"For us, it's been an excellent year as far as crops go,'' said center director Jimmy Smith. "We had enough rainfall in the winter season to have good start on crop season.''

Smith said farmers are waiting for rain to plant and "a good general rain will help things.'' The next couple of weeks are the peak for planting, he said.

Bryan Henry, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the state should be getting more rain, and people can expect a system coming through every couple of days throughout the next two weeks.

At the Forestry Commission, Grizzard said workers have had a hard few months fighting wildfires, especially in March. From July 1 through Monday, the forestry commission responded to more 2,500 wild fires that burned nearly 39,000 acres.

He said 64 percent of that acreage has burned since March 1. He said current conditions are comparable to late spring and early summer, with the driest counties being in the southern part of the state.

"We are dry as we normally would be if we were in late May,'' Grizzard said.

He said many of the fires have spread from people burning items while cleaning up their yards or land.

"With no rainfall, very gusty and steady blowing winds and low humidity, it's easy for a fire to spread quickly,'' he said. "Many of these fires happened outside the city limits in rural parts of the counties.''

He said Harrison, Jackson and George counties have been under fire bans requested by the local boards of supervisors.

"There have been many types of property damaged. For example, mobile homes, homes, a lot of out buildings and pieces of farm equipment,'' he said. "We've saved I can't tell you how many homes and farm equipment by responding as fast as we can get to them.''

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)