updated 8/19/2007 9:43:21 PM ET 2007-08-20T01:43:21

Heat-stricken residents in some areas finally got a small break Sunday from the oppressive triple-digit temperatures that have killed at least 44 people in the Southeast and Midwest.

Temperatures reached 94 in Memphis, well short of the predicted 102 and the first time in 10 days it didn’t break 100. It was forecast to reach 96 on Monday before hovering near the century mark the rest of the week.

The local health department said the city’s heat index — a measure that factors in humidity to describe how hot it feels — has broken 100 every day since June 27.

Temperatures also finally dropped into the mid-90s and upper 80s Sunday in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Missouri after more than a week of triple-digits. Americus, in southwest Georgia, was still expected to reach 99 degrees Monday.

Experts warned that the heat and extended drought conditions could mean an early start to the fire season, which usually doesn’t begin until October.

Leaves of some species of trees have already begun to brown and drop to the ground as trees suffer continued stress from the recent extreme weather that has blanketed the South coupled with April’s late freeze. That will create wildfire conditions during the closing weeks of summer.

“There’s going to be a lot of flammable material out there,” said Tim Phelps, Tennessee Department of Agriculture information and education program specialist.

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