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Lack of snow worries chiefs at start of wildfire season

Joe Lehnen, area forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry, sharpens a pulaski inside his Woodstock office on Thursday. The tool is used to dig fire lines and cut brush. Area officials are preparing for the spring fire season. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Joe Beck

Fire chiefs in Warren and Shenandoah counties are warning that a lack of snowfall could make this year's fire season worse than average.

Chiefs Gary Yew of Shenandoah County and Richard E. Mabie of Warren County said they have seen little activity so far during the fire season that began Feb. 15. But both agreed the greatest threats lie between now and the end of the season on April 30.

They said the lack of snow has left leaves and other ground debris in conditions that make it easier for fires to start and spread.

Mabie said weather conditions and the lack of snow this winter are important in determining the risk from wildfires.

So far, he said, he has seen only a small brush fire in his department's service area, but that could change as the peak period of late March and April approaches.

"Right now, it's still a little early but we could have some significant fires out here," he said.

Yew said snow does more than dampen dead leaves that can fuel forest fires if they dry out.

"Besides moisture, the weight of the snow compacts the leaf litter, which makes it more challenging for fires to spread," Yew said. "We haven't had any snow, so the leaf litter is pretty fluffy."

Karen Beck-Herzog, a spokeswoman for the Shenandoah National Park, played down wildfire worries so far this year. She said fire conditions in the park are low to moderate, although park staff plans to issue a new prediction today.

"Right now, I can tell you we have no concerns as of this minute," she said earlier this week.

Joe Lehnen, area forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry, said he agreed with Yew and Mabie that the absence of snow will make it harder to control any fires that break out this year. Snow helps compress dried out leaves, allowing them to retain more moisture, Lehnen said.

State law prohibits property owners from burning debris before 4 p.m., but Yew urged people to contact his department or the state Department of Forestry even if they delay burning until later in the day. He said the two agencies can provide up to date weather information, especially on winds that can increase the risk of burning.

Data issued by the Department of Forestry last year show that open burning was the leading cause of wildfires. Fires begun by people burning debris started 30 percent of fires statewide, according to the department. Arson at 20 percent and smokers at 14 percent were the second and third leading causes.

Lehnen said those who conduct open burns sometimes have a hard time controlling them.

"Their piles are way too big," Lehnen said. "Fire generates its own wind and as a result it becomes too large for them to keep control of."

He also urged people to place wider rings around a fire to prevent it from spreading into adjoining forest land.

"Start small and add debris as it goes along," Lehnen said. "It usually goes a lot better."


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