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Louisiana sees ‘unprecedented’ wildfires amid record heat, drought

The state’s largest wildfire on record has burned over 33,000 acres and is just 50 percent contained

Fires burn along Highway 27 in Beauregard Parish, La., on Thursday. (Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate/AP )
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More than 450 fires have scorched parts of Louisiana amid weeks of record-breaking heat and severe drought conditions. The Tiger Island Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history, tore through Beauregard Parish in the southwestern part of the state and grew from an estimated 15,000 acres to over 33,000 acres between Friday and Sunday, according to local news reports. The fire is currently only 50 percent contained.

The Louisiana blazes have been blamed for two deaths.

The area burned in Beauregard Parish, both from the Tiger Island Fire and the Longville Fire, has now surpassed 50,000 acres. As the Tiger Island Fire raged Thursday, all 1,200 residents of Merryville in Beauregard Parish were forced to evacuate their homes. The fires ravaged an estimated 20 structures.

“Wildfires this many and of this intensity are unprecedented,” Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Department, told The Washington Post. Louisiana, one of the wettest states in the country, averages 771 wildfires a year, according to 10-year average data from the department. The state has averaged 21 wildfires per day over the past several weeks, Strain said.

“With this kind of heat, the low humidity and the lack of rainfall, this is probably the driest conditions, the most drought-prone conditions we’ve had in a generation,” Strain said.

Temperatures over the weekend broke all-time records in multiple areas across the state. New Orleans International Airport soared to 105 degrees Sunday, its highest temperature ever observed. Also on Sunday, the Agriculture and Forestry Department recorded 14 wildfires in less than 10 minutes because of lightning strikes.

As fires have burned to the north and west of New Orleans, smoke plumes have entered the city at times, reducing air quality. The smoke cast a haze over the city Sunday and into Monday but was expected to disperse some because of winds and the chance of rain showers.

“The fields are just so dry, so the grass is really dry and the bushes are really dry. Everything ignites a lot easier when we’re in this kind of drought,” said Danielle Manning, lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in New Orleans.

Manning said that this summer is the hottest on record for the southern part of the state and that Baton Rouge is on track to exceed its three-month average temperature for the summer by nearly 3 degrees.

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Temperatures have been breaking records this year, particularly in places across Asia such as Thailand and Vietnam. Wildfires have plagued Canada, which has never before seen so much land burn early in the year. Experts say this is connected to climate change.
What areas are at risk of wildfires?
Currently, 1 in 6 Americans live in an area with significant wildfire risk — but many more will face danger in the coming decades, particularly across the South. See the wildfire risk for your Zip code here.
Protect yourself from wildfire smoke
Smoke particles can travel vast distances, so you may encounter hazardous conditions even if there isn’t a wildfire in your immediate area. To protect your health if you’re in an affected area, monitor your local air quality, exercise indoors, use an air purifier and wear a good mask when outdoors.
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Nearly 77 percent of the state is experiencing severe drought conditions, which are affecting 4.2 million residents, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Beauregard Parish and the surrounding area, which borders Texas, is experiencing exceptional drought conditions — the most extreme category.

Gulf Coast temperatures surge to highest levels ever observed

“Our state has never been this hot and dry and we have never had this many fires,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) wrote on Twitter.

An elderly woman died Sunday after a debris pile caused a brush fire that spread to a shed in St. Tammany Parish, which is just north of New Orleans, the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal confirmed. A statewide burn ban has been in effect since Aug. 7 because of the increased fire danger.

Earlier this month, a man died in Franklinton, which is in Washington Parish, to the north of St. Tammany Parish, the Office of State Fire Marshal said, after his home and surrounding property caught on fire.

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