Louisiana’s drought isn’t record-breaking, so why is its wildfire season?

The state’s largest wildfire on record is still burning, already covering more than Louisiana’s annual average of burned acres. 

The arson-caused Tiger Island Fire has burned more than 31,000 acres and is now estimated  at just 50 percent containment. An ABC News report said law enforcement are searching for the arsonist — and offering a $2000 reward.

Tiger island Fire
Tiger Island Fire, August 27 — inciweb photo.

It’s only one of the nearly 600 wildland fires that have burned across the state in 2023. The vast majority of the fires have been burning in the Beauregard Parish area near the state’s southwest corner. Officials said excess fuels from trees knocked down during hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Ida in 2021 are feeding the fires.

Some  have also blamed drought for the record fire season.

However, the Pelican State’s drought isn’t close to breaking drought records, so why is it breaking wildfire records?

Nearly all of Louisiana is under severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, according to the U.S Drought Monitor. Despite that, NOAA data shows the state’s current drought isn’t close to being one of the driest on record. July of this year was the state’s 17th driest on record, with the period between June and July recorded as the 14th driest on record and the period between May and July being the 11th driest on record.

So, if drought isn’t the primary cause of the state’s wildland fires, what is? Other than a record-breaking number of acres burned, Louisiana this year is also breaking numerous temperature records.

July was Louisiana’s hottest month ever recorded, the National Weather Service reported, and Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on August 11 when heat indices peaked at 120 degrees. Heat smashed the highest temperature records in numerous areas across Louisiana on August 27.

Drought can contribute to drying, but record-breaking heat can worsen and increase withering, priming vegetation into excellent wildfire fuel, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Hotter temperatures evaporate more moisture from soil and vegetation, drying out trees, shrubs and grasses, and turning leaf litter and fallen branches into kindling,” according  to the EDF. The extreme temperatures showed just how much of a chokehold the heat had on wildfires in the region when intense downpours on August 29 did little to help with numerous wildfires throughout the state.

Under the most extreme circumstances, Louisiana could see upwards of a 12-degree average temperature increase over the next 75 years, and if it does, the state’s bayous should expect wildfires to become an even more common occurrence.

BY THE WAY, loyal fans and other readers, let me introduce our new pyrojournalist Hunter Bassler, hired by me and the IAWF after a recommendation by Judd Slivka, who was for many years the best fire reporter in the western United States (besides Jeff Barnard and the inimitable Sherry Devlin), whom I’m sure many of you remember from his fire reporting days with the Arizona Republic.

Hunter BasslerHunter Bassler is a digital producer and reporter for KSDK 5 On Your Side in St. Louis, Missouri, reporting on environmental, climate, and infrastructure news and issues. Hunter was also a digital producer and reporter for 12News in Phoenix, focused on Arizona’s environmental water crisis, infrastructure, and history. Before that Hunter reported on Brexit and Artificial Intelligence in Brussels at the regulatory wire service MLex, wrote and produced content on global free speech issues for the online and NPR-member station program Global Journalist, and worked as multimedia editor for Columbia, Missouri’s entertainment magazine Vox.

Hunter graduated from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s in Convergence Journalism. In their spare time, Hunter enjoys watching movies, hiking, and spending time with the love of their life, Jess.

 ~ Kelly Andersson

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7 thoughts on “Louisiana’s drought isn’t record-breaking, so why is its wildfire season?”

  1. They do.. if I had to keep my eye on a few things, I’d keep my eye on:
    Timespan of years observed in the past
    Timespan of years predicted into the future
    Spatial scale- one state, the US, North America, the planet (this comes up in wildfire a lot)
    Modeled or observed variables
    Degrees C or F
    Which scenario .. RCP 8.5 has the most dramatic effects but also many think it’s not realistic. Those people generally think 4.5 is more likely.

    I’m sure there are others.

  2. Great question, Kelly! First of all, they are all made up in the sense of guesstimates. Many folks are unaware that economic models go into scenarios, that go into atmospheric models, that may then come down into regional models.. so there’s lots of assumptions. At the same time, we have the IPCC, who are generally thought to be “the ones we generally give credit to for answers” because it’s convenient and easily accessible. And the National Climate Assessment for the kind of maps that show changes in average temps.https://climatechange.chicago.gov/sites/production/files/2016-07/scenarioustemp-large.jpg but it’s from the 2009 National Climate Assessment, not the most recent. So bottom line, I don’t think it’s reasonable for any of us to keep up with it all. The only reason I noticed the average temp in this piece is that I had posted this a while back on The Smokey Wire. https://forestpolicypub.com/2023/04/28/science-friday-can-forest-trees-adapt-to-climate-change-i-questions-raised-in-recent-wapo-story/
    It has some NOAA data for average temperature change for the last century. You can see that Louisiana has pretty low temperature change relative to other states.(People disagree over how past temps are estimated, given the difference in measurement technology, number of stations, corrections, heat island effects from urban areas and so on) . Note that the EPA says that not all the regional trends are statistically significant.
    Anyway, so that’s what made me think 12 degrees increase sounds pretty high. It’s not like a person not in this can keep all that info in their head! Especially those of us for whom this is not our primary job.

    If I had to quickly look something up I would probably go to the Forest Service, but that’s probably because I used to work there. But then if other scientists/entities keep generating reports, do the FS websites keep up in real time?
    Finally I guess there’s a both/and thing here. It’s true that no one really knows what will happen in the future. But if we have to go with someone, it’s probably the IPCC internationally and the National Climate Assessment in the US with two caveats 1. they are both human institutions with flaws and 2. It’s hard to get info directly from the documents without spending a great deal of time (and different parts of the IPCC may not all agree) so you have to go, generally through folks that pick out the interesting parts (such as the FS) which also may not keep up or make mistakes.

    Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful 🙂

    1. That’s AWESOME, Sharon. Thank you. I have also noticed that reports like that online vary quite a lot from one site to the next on which span of years they are comparing with.

  3. Hunter, I looked at your citation but couldn’t find “a 12 degree average temperature increase over the next 7 years”. That seems really high. Maybe 1.2?

    1. Hello, Sharon! Good catch. That was a typo on my part. I meant to say 75 years. Will edit asap! Thank you for the heads up!


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