14th heat death in Shelby Co. reported; burn permits required

Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A 14th person in Shelby County has died from heat-related causes, officials announced Monday, while stricter regulations for burning were put in place much sooner than Tennessee's normal wildfire season.

Record drought conditions across much of the state have not abated despite recent thunderstorms, but high temperatures in most cities have dropped into the 90s after weeks of triple digits.

The Shelby County Medical Examiner's Office said a 27-year-old woman without air conditioning in her home died Friday, raising the number of confirmed heat-related deaths in the state to 15.

The woman had chronic health problems, but heat contributed to her death. Friday's high temperature of 100 degrees in Memphis matched a 1983 record.

Two other deaths in the state this month were believed to be heat-related, but not confirmed. The heat wave combined with an extended drought have also put forestry officials on alert after fires have burned an estimated 37,000 acres in the state.

Officials say they will probably not issue burn permits until next May unless there is substantial rainfall. Usually burn permits are restricted during the state's typical fire season that runs Oct. 15 through May 15 each year.

But the exceptional drought has created plenty of fuel for spreading fires. Already this year, Tennessee has seen nearly 2,700 fires with causes ranging from simply flicking a cigarette onto the side of the highway to arson.

"We're already eight months into the year and we've exceeded the number of fires that we normally see," said Tom Womack, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

But the leading cause of fires in the state are spread by debris fires set by landowners or homeowners to clear land or dead leaves or brush. "In the fall, a lot of landowners like to rake up leaves and burn them," Womack said.

"We are simply advising that kind of fire is not permitted." The burn permit restriction shouldn't put a damper on cookout plans for the Labor Day holiday, Womack said.

Grilling outside and fires set inside barrels with a screened cover do not require permits. The state has a new fire prevention Web site that provides prevention tips to homeowners, a daily fire report and forecasts for the state.

Womack said the number of wildfires has increased this year in part because the early freeze in April delayed trees from sprouting new leaves.

"We typically see 24-30,000 acres burned a year by 2,500 fires," Womack said. However, these restrictions could be removed on a county-by-county basis between now and Oct. 15.

"Considering the forecast for continued hot, dry conditions and little chance of rainfall, we will be issuing burning permits on a very limited basis, to be evaluated county by county and considering local conditions," said State Forester Steve Scott in a news release.

The month of August brought several consecutive days of 100-degree weather, including daily highs of 106 in Memphis, Jackson and Nashville.

The drought in parts of the state including areas around Chattanooga have reached levels typically seen only once in 50 years, according to the National Weather Service.

Backcountry campfires have been banned in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of extreme dry conditions and the risk of wildfires.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)