Louisiana is battling wildfires due to extreme heat and dry weather

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BATON ROUGE (AP) — Hundreds of wildfires are burning in Louisiana, as triple-digit temperatures continue to burn parts of the state amid little chance for relief due to little rain in the forecast.

Although many of the fires are small, one grew “exponentially” overnight in western Louisiana, prompting evacuation orders and burning more than 10,000 acres of land, about 16 square miles (41 square kilometers). Officials say the flames at times reached 300 feet (91 meters) high.

The one fire, known as the Tiger Island Fire, caused more acres of land burned than the statewide annual average over the past decade. Wildfires are now threatening the town of Merriville, population about 1,000 people, in Beauregard Parish. While most residents are under a voluntary evacuation order, a mandatory evacuation order was issued Wednesday for about 100 people in the area.

There have been no reports of injuries or destruction of buildings at this time.

“While we urgently respond to the current situation in Beauregard Parish, our first responders have been battling an unprecedented number of wildfires across the state,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement Wednesday.

Normally during this time of year, the Deep South State faces the imminent threats of hurricanes, tropical storms, and flooding. But this summer has instead seen unprecedented drought and heat, making Louisiana’s wildfire risk unusually high. In June, July, and August, there were more than 230 wildfires in the state, burning more than 6,500 acres of land, 10 square miles (25 square kilometers). Fire officials say homes were destroyed as a result, but did not specify how many. This does not include the Tiger Island fire.

“As soon as one fire is put out, another one pops up,” Jennifer Finley, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said Wednesday.

Edwards and fire officials say many of the fires could have been prevented if residents had adhered to the statewide burn ban that has been in effect since early August.

“Firefighters from all over the state are exhausted from responding to numerous illegal burn piles and wildfires, which often turn into larger wildfires due to dangerous conditions,” said State Fire Marshal Dan Wallis. “We are appealing to the public to cooperate with this burn ban.”

During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, fire officials stressed how easily fires could start in these dry conditions — saying something as small as a cigarette butt thrown out a car window, a spark from pulling secure trailer chains, warm exhaust pipes on the grass, or even cooking outside. It can lead to devastating consequences.

“We want to raise awareness to the fact that there is a threat out there…it just takes a spark to become a reality for all of us,” said Casey Tingle, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Hot weather has gripped southern Louisiana this summer, with global heat records being broken. The National Weather Service on Wednesday issued an excessive heat warning for southeastern Louisiana — including Baton Rouge and New Orleans — where heat indexes are expected to reach 118 degrees Fahrenheit (47.8 degrees Celsius).

The state Department of Health reported Tuesday that there have been 25 heat-related deaths this summer. Additionally, there have been 4,766 heat-related emergency department visits in Louisiana since the beginning of April, which is 77% higher than the annual average over the past decade.

Last week, Edwards declared a state of emergency due to the extreme heat.

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