Mississippi Success Story: Too Close For Comfort
A close call with wildfire encourages implementation of Firewise USA® principles
Home is where the heart is, as the saying goes. But it’s also where we keep some of our most important things–photos, gifts, family heirlooms, memories. It takes a lifetime to collect them, but they can go up in smoke in an instant.
Gladys Jowers sat in the family room of her ranch house in Louisville, Mississippi, one day in 2014. It was a Monday in early May, and she saw a roll of smoke billow over her deck. A tornado had come across town two weeks before and knocked many trees down in her neighborhood. That weekend, one of her neighbors piled up the debris from his property and burned it. He hadn’t dug the perimeter deep enough, nor had he made sure the piles were completely burned down before leaving.
48 hours later, the fire had spread over onto Jowers’ property, raging and growing from her own debris piles and grassy yard to the shrubs along her back deck. “I turned right around and called the fire department,” Jowers said. As she hung up, she saw the bushes out her front window were on fire, too. A couple driving by stopped out front and rushed to help Jowers pull the garden hose out.
The Louisville Fire Department arrived quickly after the call with a small tanker and began to put the grass fire out. As the blaze spread, the felled trees from the tornado at the back of the property roared. They had to call in a bigger truck, and they spent an hour trying to fight the growing fire.
The fire chief called the Mississippi Forestry Commission, who rushed out with a bulldozer and heavy equipment and contained the damage while the fire department extinguished the wildfire. Orlando Ellerby, Firewise USA® Coordinator with the commission jumped in his truck and drove straight to the property. The first thing he noticed when he arrived was the wood pile against the shed. “If the wood pile would have burned up, it would’ve definitely burned the house down,” Ellerby said. The fire department was quick to collect and move the wood away from the shed.
Jowers was lucky, the fire chief told her. Even though three-quarters of the 3.5 acres on the property were burned, the house had sustained no damage. The brick border around her deck had halted the flames from jumping from the grass to the house. And she had removed two cedars right next to the house after the tornado damaged them. The fire department and forestry commission said those surely would have jumped the fire to the house and burned it down had they been there.
“That could’ve been really, really bad,” Ellerby said. Ellerby has said that, even though Mississippi’s forests are predominately hardwood, many homeowners are planting pine trees because they grow faster and are a nicer landscape aesthetic. But they prove a higher fire risk, he warns, as softwoods burn faster than hardwoods.
Ellerby works with homeowners around Mississippi like Jowers through Firewise USA®, a program through the National Fire Protection Association that “teaches people how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourages neighbors to work together and take action now to prevent losses.” He’s the primary resource for them to minimize their risk of wildfire damage to their house.
Since the fire that almost burned down her house, Jowers is vigilant if she sees anyone burning their debris piles in the neighborhood, and for good reason. “An ember from a brush fire can travel up to 14 miles, depending on wind speed,” Ellerby told her. “Fires can spread quickly because 65 percent of Mississippi’s land is in forestland, and those forests are close to homes out in rural areas.” And a recent study by NOAA suggests that the risk of very large fire weeks will increase by 300 percent by 2041–so we all need to be as vigilant about wildfire safety as Mrs. Jowers.
“I feel very blessed that I just had minimal damage to the house,” Jowers said. “I’m so appreciative of the Louisville Fire Department, the Mississippi Forestry Commission and the good strangers who stopped to help out.”