LUTCHER — The sheriff in St. James Parish is concerned the parish’s oldest tradition — and biggest tourist attraction — may face an unwanted enemy this year.
A forecast of thunderstorms, and worse yet, a dreaded southerly wind could cause the annual Christmas Eve tradition of lighting bonfires along the Mississippi River to be postponed, St. James Sheriff Willy Martin said.
“Quite frankly, right now, I don’t feel very comfortable with the conditions being predicted,” Martin said.
Martin said he, Parish President Timmy Roussel and the parish’s director of emergency preparedness, Eric Deroche, will monitor the weather conditions Monday evening leading up to the traditional 7 p.m. lighting of the bonfires. He said permit-holders understand the rules and that they aren’t allowed to light up until the “all-clear” is given by the sheriff.
“We have a timeline set to do a conference call so that we can evaluate the conditions,” Martin said. “Our main culprit is the wind. The only thing that has stopped us from lighting is wind direction. Our concern is whether the wind direction will be pushing hot ambers off the levee toward residential areas. We don’t want to see any houses set on fire.”
Fred Zeigler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Slidell office, said Martin has reason for concern.
Though temperatures are expected to be in the mid-60s about 7 p.m., a storm system is forecast to come through St. James Parish either Monday afternoon or evening. There is a 40 percent chance of rain, Ziegler said, as well as southerly winds between 7 and 12 mph.
There is a chance that those winds could “kind of settle down a little,” decreasing to around 5 mph by 7 p.m., he said. But the winds will be a factor.
“Unfortunately, that’s gonna be present,” Ziegler said.
Should the weather be a factor, Christmas night and New Year’s Eve are other options for lighting the bonfires, though Martin said no decisions have been made.
If the wind were to postpone the Christmas Eve tradition, it would put a damper on the biggest tourism day of the year for the parish. Thousands of area residents and visitors are expected to flock to the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy to catch a glimpse of the row of bonfires that will be lit along the east bank levee of the Mississippi River.
Martin said he’s unsure just how many people will travel along River Road to take in the spectacle.
“We just know that it’s probably the heaviest population we see as far as visitors in one day and one night than (on) any other night of the year in St. James,” he said.
Audrey Temple, economic development coordinator at the St. James Welcome Center, said at last count, the welcome center had issued 110 permits to build bonfires along the levee. At $30 per permit, the bonfires have generated $3,300 in income.
However, Temple said, the economic boon to the parish will be much greater than that.
Although she said she didn’t have any specific figures for the number of tourists who will visit the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy for the annual bonfires or the estimated economic impact they will bring, Temple echoed Martin in saying the bonfires bring more tourists to the parish than any other event during the year.
“My phone’s been ringing off the hook with tourists asking about where to go and where to park for the bonfires,” Temple said.
Martin said every sheriff’s deputy in the parish will be on duty Christmas Eve, directing traffic along River Road. The busiest time will be from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., he said.
“Our main mission is to keep the traffic flowing slow, to try to prevent the road from shutting itself down,” he said. “We’ll keep it moving, just moving at a very slow pace.”
Many visitors to the parish will be repeaters who have in mind a destination of where they want to be. However, newcomers need to know a few rules, he said.
For instance, there are no designated parking zones, and deputies will not direct people to parking locations. Parking is limited along River Road, though many visitors seek out empty parking lots on Main Street just a couple of blocks away from the levee.
In addition, the sheriff said, visitors who choose not to park and walk but rather to drive down River Road should be mindful and cautious of pedestrians crossing the highway. His suggestion for first-timers is to come early, find a parking spot and enjoy the show.