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4 o’clock burn law starts Friday

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

 

After months of record or near record rainfall, Virginia’s 4 o’clock burn law may seem obsolete, but Virginia Department of Forestry says that’s not the case.

“It only takes a couple of days of sun or wind for conditions to change when vegetation is dormant,” says Brad Wright, a local firefighter and wildfire hazard mitigation specialist for Virginia Department of Forestry.

The 4 p.m. burn law, adopted in the 1940s, starts Friday and continues through April 30. The law prohibits outdoor burning prior to 4 p.m. when the fire is within 300 feet of woodland, brush land or fields containing dry grass or other flammable materials.

Even after days of rain this time of year, a couple of days of sunshine or high winds can quickly dry the top layer of dead leaves and grasses, Wright said. This makes them susceptible to sparks from an outdoor burn or other sources of ignition.

He said the most prominent cause of wildfires in February and March is people dumping ashes on the ground from woodstoves and fireplaces. Even if the ashes are dumped while it’s raining, embers can continue to smolder within the pile for days — and sometimes weeks. Eventually, ashes blow off the embers and ignite them and nearby vegetation.

All of the rain we’ve had also poses a problem with fighting fires once they get started. Wright said the top layers may be burning, but that doesn’t mean the soil underneath is dry. As Forestry and fire department equipment enters fields and forests, the equipment gets stuck, hindering the operation.

Even if we go through a dry spell or get back to normal precipitation this spring and summer, Wright believes the effects of this wet period will be felt next fall and winter, when vegetation goes dormant again.

“Next year, we could have an abundance of high grass — what we call ‘flashy fuel,’” he said. When it starts to warm this spring, he explained, grasses and other vegetation will green up and start growing due to the moisture. This could leave behind a lot of fuel for wildfires in the fall and winter.

To compound the problem, Wright said there has been so much rain this winter Forestry officials haven’t been able to conduct prescribed burns as scheduled. Those controlled burns are used to eliminate fuel sources for wildfires.

Under the 4 p.m. burn law, open air burning is allowed between the hours of 4 p.m. and midnight as long as precautions are taken and the fire is attended at all times. After 4 p.m., winds usually have calmed and the humidity has started to climb, making it less likely a wildfire would ignite.

The law prohibits campfires, even if surrounded by rocks. However, pit fires may be approved if they are below ground level, are continuously monitored, are completely enclosed with cinder blocks, and a metal screen with quarter-inch or smaller holes covers the enclosure. Fire suppression equipment such as shovels and water should be kept available and all flammable materials should be cleared in a 20-foot circle around the pit.

Charcoal or gas barbecue grills may be used, but all flammable materials must be cleared from around them and someone must remain with it at all times until the fire is extinguished or turned off.

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