By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

HOLLY SPRINGS - Firefighters across Northeast Mississippi, and particularly in Marshall County, were praying Friday that predictions of rain would come true so they wouldn't have to recreate a history-making, artificial rainstorm that occurred Thursday.

Low humidity and high winds combined earlier this week to create the perfect conditions for spreading fires. Four homes were lost to brush and grass fires in Marshall County alone on Thursday, and the U.S. Forest Service was forced to fly in air tankers from Arkansas and Texas to help control the blaze. It was the first time in the state's history that air tankers have been needed to fight a fire, the Forest Service said.

"We didn't have any choice," said Don Bolinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "(The fire) was getting so far ahead of us, the tankers were able to catch up."

Two fires were responsible for the damage in Marshall County Thursday. The first was in the Holly Springs National Forest, where 1,120 acres were lost along with two homes.

"It resembled just what you would see in California," said Holly Springs Fire Chief Kenny Holbrook, whose department was assisting with the forest fire Thursday morning before being called away to another fire inside the city. "The heat was just like there; the smoke was just like there; and it was moving that fast. ... When you see brush piles 40 feet ahead of the fire just burst into flames, you know you've got some heat."

With the help of an air tanker from Fort Smith, Ark., which dropped 3,000 gallons of water on the blaze, and another from Longview, Texas, which deposited another 2,000 gallons, the Forest Service was able to get a fire lane around the fire by Friday but were unwilling to call the incident over.

"They got a line around it but it's not controlled," Bolinger of the Forest Service said late Friday afternoon.

He said about 60 firefighters had battled the blaze that resulted in the destruction of two homes near where the fire was located about six miles east of Holly Springs and about two miles northeast of Chewalla Lake campground.

The cause of the fire is unknown and is under investigation.

Round two

Shortly after the forest fire broke out, Holbrook's firefighters were called back into Holly Springs where a grass fire had gotten out of control and was threatening several structures along Hudsonville Road in the north part of the city.

That fire destroyed two homes, one occupied and one abandoned, and could have burned more if not for the firefighters.

"We had damage to about two others whose roofs caught fire," Holbrook said. "It was a scene. Flames were 30- to 40-feet high. On one light pole, it burned the light off. That will tell you how high the flames got."

With the help of seven other fire departments that provided about four firefighters each and at least one piece of equipment each, as well as 31 Holly Springs firefighters, the fire was brought under control late Thursday.

The cause is unknown, but a preliminary investigation has turned up where the fire started, Holbrook said.

"We don't know how but we know where," he said.

Charles Davis, private lands forester for the Mississippi Forestry Commission, said the department's firefighting crews have been busy moving from fire to fire but that the Marshall County fires seemed to be the biggest and most destructive.

"By running crews around, we've been able to stay even," Davis said. He said the work had been hampered by aging equipment and reduced manpower due to budget cuts. A special Federal Emergency Management Crew available for building fire lanes had been called up to assist.

Residents are urged not to burn debris or trash until after the current danger is over. Weather service officials are predicting thunderstorms over the region this weekend, which should alleviate the threat.

"It'll end with a bang just like it started and then it'll be over," Davis said.

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