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Spring wildfire season approaching

By TRAVIS HANDY
travis@southwesttimes.com

It happens every year, February through April. Virginia’s spring wildfire season is on the horizon, and the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) is hoping citizens will be aware and use extreme caution during one of the most dangerous periods of the year for wildfires.

Along with the fire season comes the 4 p.m. Burning Law, which makes it illegal to have an open-air fire before the hour of 4 p.m. The law was adopted in the 1940s to reduce the number of wildfires occurring each spring. The law goes into effect every year on Feb. 15 and goes through April 30.

According to information gathered from the VDOF website, during the winter months, winds are more elevated, the relative humidity is lower and “fuels on the forest floor are extremely dry, having ‘cured’ without having the tree leaves to shade them.”

Those elements create the perfect recipe for dangerous conditions, which could lead to a wildfire due to carelessness or natural causes.

VDOF Director of Resource Protection, John Miller, underscored the dangers of the conditions described and reinforced the important role everyday citizens play in preventing wildfires.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia employed the 4 p.m. Burning Law during the spring of every year and we do that in an effort to hold down the number of wildfire starts that are the result of escaped debris burning,” said Miller.

He explained how the transition from winter to spring leads to more frequent wind events, referring to the “March winds” which accompany seasonal warming in our region. Lower relative humidity, warmer, dryer air, and dead grass and vegetation on the ground lead to a greater potential for wildfires to start.

“By aiming to restrict debris burning, which is Virginia’s leading cause of wildfire, we’re just trying to alter the (awareness of the) burning public enough to hold down the number of wildfires in Virginia,” said Miller.

He said any kind of outdoor burning, from yard cleaning and raking leaves, to larger things like land-clearing operations and road construction projects requiring people to pile up and burn debris account for about 60 percent of the wildfires in our state. The next leading cause is arson, contributing to 30 percent of wildfires annually.

“That’s not something we can normally impact from a 4 p.m. burning law, but still, it’s surprising to most people that (arson is) Virginia’s second-leading cause of fire, and you’ve got to go back a long time to find that any different,” Miller said.

He said the most important thing people can do is make sure they are careful when they do outdoor burning. His advice is to stay with the fire until it is out, be sure there is a fuel break or fire ring around the fire, and to “have some hand tools and water available in the event things start to go wrong for you.”

In order to protect your home and property from wildfires, Miller suggests making a “defensible space” around your property by removing low-hanging and dead vegetation from within 30 feet of your house, and preferably as much as 50 to 100 feet on steeper terrain.

The key, Miller said, is to create a space around your home, which is not receptive to a wildfire to begin with. Doing so would allow firefighters a safe avenue to protect your home.

“In the spring of the year there is a big concern about wildfires coming from debris burning,” said Miller. “It’s not that we don’t want the public to do debris burning, we just want to make sure they do it safely, recognize the additional hazard during that time of year when everything is just more receptive to a wildfire anyway, and just take more precautions than they would at other times of the year.”

During 2012 in Virginia, 775 wildfires burned 40,737 acres. These fires resulted in a total of just over $5.2 million in damages. The total damages included over $3.3 million dollars in timber damages, nine homes that were damaged or destroyed at a valued of $555,000 and 55 other buildings that were damaged at a value of over $547,000.

Last year, VDOF responded to six fires in Pulaski County, which burned eight acres; 13 fires in Montgomery County, which burned 46.1 acres; four fires in Giles, which burned 12 acres, and one fire in Wythe County, which burned half an acre.

Violation of the 4 p.m. burning law carries misdemeanor charges. Miller said the first offense is a roughly $50 to $100 fine, which does not include other court costs incurred.

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