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