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Louisiana's record-breaking wildfire continues to burn

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Louisiana's largest wildfire ever recorded is still burning a week after it started near the Texas border. The state's in a severe drought and continues to experience record heat. Aubri Juhasz is covering this from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Hi, Aubri.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's Louisiana's wildfire season been like this year?

JUHASZ: Yeah, it's been unusually active. Fires aren't unheard of here, but they're definitely not the first thing that comes up when you talk about natural disasters - that's hurricanes, obviously. But right now, the state is averaging more than 20 wildfires a day. Most of those are on the smaller side. But a large blaze started, as you said, about a week ago near the Texas border. That fire, which is burning in and around Beauregard Parish, has already consumed more than 30,000 acres. That's almost double the amount of land that burned in total last year. The area is heavily forested with a few small towns. Some had to be evacuated, but those orders have since been lifted. About 20 structures, including some homes, have been damaged or destroyed. And nearly a third of the state's parishes have declared states of emergency due to wildfires, and a statewide burn ban is in place.

SHAPIRO: What is the state of that largest fire in Beauregard Parish right now?

JUHASZ: Yeah, it's died down in recent days thanks to a little bit of rain, but it's still very much active and could flare back up again. All it takes is a gust of wind. Officials out there say they're really approaching this firefight from a long-term perspective. And that's because it's been so dry for so long that they say the state is essentially a tinderbox. And it's really hard to put out a large fire like this without a significant amount of rain. My colleague, Adam Vos, spoke with Mike Strain, the state's commissioner of agriculture and forestry, about this.

MIKE STRAIN: Just go outside and walk on the grass. You know, it crunches under your feet. And so any type of fire - lightning when it hits normally is absorbed into the earth and doesn't spread. Now, when it hits, it lights a huge fire.

JUHASZ: Strain says lightning is just one cause of the fires. He says most can probably be traced back to human negligence, things like debris and electrical fires, cooking outside or even a cigarette butt. Louisiana's called in resources from other states and the federal government because it's just not in a position to fight this many fires of this magnitude on its own. There have been no fatalities from the largest fire, but at least two deaths have been attributed to smaller fires in other parts of the state.

SHAPIRO: We know, broadly speaking, that human-driven climate change is making wildfires more intense and frequent. Do you have a sense of how that is affecting the fires this summer?

JUHASZ: Yeah, I called up Barry Keim, the state's climatologist, to ask him about this. And he says, while climate change is playing a role, he doesn't expect every summer to be like this going forward. He told me Louisiana has always been a place of climate extremes. And he pointed to a few examples. We've had record-breaking floods. Now we're in a drought. A few years ago, we had an unbelievably active hurricane season. And last year, not a single storm made landfall. But he says climate change does play a role. And he pointed to some other factors, too, including this dome of high pressure that's been sitting over the south-central U.S. all summer long. That's prevented clouds from forming and Louisiana from getting much needed rain.

BARRY KEIM: Oddly enough, the one thing that we can actually probably use after this extraordinarily hot and dry summer is a very weak - and I emphasize a very weak - tropical system to come on in here and just give us a good soak.

JUHASZ: He says it'll probably take more than just one good soak but several to get us back to a safe place. And with Hurricane Idalia steering clear of us, for parts of the state, that may not happen anytime soon.

SHAPIRO: That's Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thank you.

JUHASZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.