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Dozens of wildfires burn in Louisiana amid scorching heat: "This is unprecedented"

Dozens of wildfires burn across Louisiana
Dozens of wildfires burn across Louisiana 01:39

An entire town in southwestern Louisiana is under mandatory evacuation orders because of a wildfire that state officials say is the largest they have ever seen.

Usually during this time of year, the Deep South state is addressing threats of imminent hurricanes, tropical storms and flooding. But this summer Louisiana has been plagued by record-breaking heat and extreme drought, which have made the wildfire risk unusually high. This month alone, there have been 441 wildfires in the state.

Louisiana's largest blaze, the Tiger Island Fire in Beauregard Parish, has already burned an estimated 23 square miles — accounting for more acres of burned land than the state usually has in an entire year.

The fire forced the 1,200 residents of Merryville, a rural town just east of the Texas border, to evacuate Thursday night. 

"All of a sudden there was smoke behind my house," Merryville evacuee Linda Schank told CBS News. "And this helicopter came and dropped this big old bucket of water."      

The evacuation order remained in effect Friday evening. With so many evacuees, one 72-bed shelter in the city of DeRidder, located about 20 miles northeast of Merryville, was filling up so fast, the Red Cross was forced to open a second shelter at a nearby church.

There have not been any reported injuries, but at least 10 residential structures have been burned, the Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office posted on social media.

"This is unprecedented. We've never had to fight this many fires simultaneously and at this duration. We're fighting between 25 and 30 (wildfires) today," Mike Strain, the commissioner for Louisiana's Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said during a news conference Friday.

As of Friday evening, the Tiger Island Fire was a little more than 50% contained, the sheriff's office said, with crews facing an "unconfined fire that was threatening infrastructure." 

Resources have been stretched thin as firefighters work in hot weather and use local water sources in a community that is used to flooding and hurricanes rather than drought and fire. 

"We only have so many resources to allocate to fires and once you are out, you're out," said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who surveyed damage from the wildfire Friday.

Massive Louisiana wildfire forces hundreds of evacuations amid scorching heat
A wildfire burns in Louisiana, one of dozens burning across the state. Aug. 23, 2023.  Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry

"These fires, simply put, present a threat to the public, to our families, to our homes, our businesses, and our property. But there's also an imminent threat to those that are fighting these fires on our behalf," said Casey Tingle, director for the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that he was deploying firefighters and other emergency personnel to Louisiana to help combat the wildfire in Merryville, which is about 120 miles northeast of Houston.

While nearly all of Louisiana is abnormally dry for this time of year, half of the state is facing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Nobody alive in Louisiana today has ever seen these conditions. It has never been this hot and dry for this long," Edwards said during Friday's news conference.

The state has faced scorching temperatures this summer. Last week, Edwards declared a state of emergency because of extreme heat.

About 40 miles southeast of Merryville, in Lake Charles, temperatures have been in the triple digits every day since Aug. 18 and over 95 degrees since June 29.

"We are all praying for rain, even knowing that we probably won't see it," Strain said.

Edwards said that, based on conversations with the National Weather Service, the highest chance of rain will be Tuesday night. But he added that if it is not "a good, hard and sustained rain, then we are not sure it is going to have the impact that we need it to have."

With the hot and dry conditions, state and fire officials stress that something as minimal as warm exhaust pipes on grass, cigarette butts thrown out a car window and sparks from dragging safety trailer chains can quickly escalate to mass devastation.

Edwards said many of the blazes could have been prevented if residents adhered to a statewide burn ban that has been in effect since early August. 

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