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Controlled burn closes Lacassine Wildlife Refuge

Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 9:23 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Two very different wilderness areas in Louisiana are closed for controlled burns.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to set fire on Thursday to nearly 6,000 acres of marsh in the Lacassine Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to burn about 4,300 acres of forest in the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area of the Kisatchie National Forest. It's closing the entire 8,700-acre wilderness area in central Louisiana, including the Backbone, Highridge, Long Leaf Vista and Turpentine Hill trails.

"Today, tomorrow and the next day — in terms of all the factors that come together that will allow a safe and effective prescribed fire — the days are going to be dead solid perfect," said Mike Dawson, district ranger for the forest's Kisatchie District.

Meteorologists are predicting the right wind speed and direction and relative humidity for a safe burn, and the right "mixing height" to disperse the smoke, he said.

Northerly winds likely to lift and disperse smoke over the Gulf are expected at Lacassine, refuge spokeswoman Diane Borden-Billiot said.

Controlled burns limit accumulation of branches, brush and other dead plants that could otherwise feed a disastrous wildfire. They also can help prevent the spread of native insect pests and invasive species and can improve wildlife habitat.

In the Southwest Louisiana marsh, a fire every three years or so will spur cordgrass, sawgrass and Roseau cane into new growth, Borden-Billiot said. The Lacassine Wilderness area and adjoining management units haven't been burned in more than 10 years because the weather was never right, she said.

"It's one of our primary waterfowl hunting areas. ... Finally we have a weather window of opportunity," she said.

New growth should improve nesting habitat for mottled ducks, she said.

Longleaf pine trees, which depend on regular fires, make up about 75 percent of the trees in the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area. The burn will improve habitat for songbirds, wild turkeys and red-cockaded woodpeckers, spokeswoman Amy Robertson said.

She said visitors can call the Kisatchie Ranger District Office at (318) 472-1840 to learn when the trails will reopen.

A 2010 wildfire in the same area almost created a template of ridges, creeks and other natural firebreaks to contain the controlled burn, Dawson said.

Because it's in such a rugged area, he said, more than 70 people will be working on it. An area burned on Wednesday needed about 18 people to control fire in 1,600 acres, he said.

The first step will be burning a safe zone on the side sheltered from the wind, he said. Once that's done, a helicopter will fly over a large area, dropping small balls filled with chemicals that ignite about 30 seconds after they land.

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