HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - You may have seen a huge column of smoke billowing over north Harrison County Monday afternoon. There may be some lingering smoke and ash in the area. The blaze was a prescribed burn covering more than 2,000 acres. The burn can prevent future wildfires and help create an ideal home for some endangered creatures.
Firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service intentionally torched 2,100 acres near Bethel and Marvin Williams Road Monday. Overhead, a helicopter dropped some 10,000 tiny balls filled with a chemical and injected with anti-freeze.
"We fly the grid pattern. We drop the ping pong balls and they catch on fire and what that does is it allows us to burn a large area in a short period of time," said Jay Boykin, District Fire Management Officer with the U.S. Forest Service.
Moments later, flames crackled and popped and a huge plume of heavy smoke rose over the skies of north Harrison County. The prescribed burn is done every three to five years. It gets rid of dead grass, straw, and leaves that could spark more destructive wildfires.
"We really want to get this area in the condition where if there is a fire, it's manageable. We can get in there and it's safe for the firefighters and for the public and just reduce the occurrence of fires in this area," said Boykin.
The burn will not only reduce the risk of future fires, it will also preserve the habitat for wildlife, mainly the endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker. There are seven active colonies in the wooded area.
"Historically there were a lot of them in this area. There are not that many now, but we've worked pretty hard and we've actually brought in some birds from other larger populations and the population is really growing here with the improved habitat," said Boykin.
And since the pine trees where the woodpeckers live have sap flowing from them, firefighters have to take extra precautions to prevent the sap from catching fire. The prescribed burn creates an open forest area for the birds to call home, while helping to save lives and property for humans.
The area under the prescribed burn is part of the DeSoto National Forest. It is also home to the federally threatened Gopher Tortoise.
Firefighters say prescribed burns are common this time of year. Drivers are being asked to slow down and turn on their headlights if they encounter smoky conditions.