Heavy snows may limit wildfires this year

By Joe Beck

Heavy snowfall is allowing the fire chiefs in Warren and Shenandoah counties to feel a bit of optimism about the annual wildfire season that began officially on Saturday.

The snow will make it harder for any fire that starts to spread its destruction over a wide area. Wildfires rely on leaf litter and other ground debris to spread. Moisture from the snow that lingers in and on the ground packs the leaf litter more tightly, which makes it harder for oxygen to penetrate the fallen leaves if they catch fire.

Chief Richard E. Mabie of Warren County said the reprieve granted by the snowfall may last a while.

“The thing is, with 18 inches of snow on the ground, wildfires do not spread, but trust me, this snow will go away and the winds will come, Mabie said. “They dry everything out and then we will have a wildfire season.”

“What we’ve got here is probably going to hold us off on any major fires for weeks,” Mabie added.

Chief Gary Yew of Shenandoah County said the heavy snowfall also carries the disadvantage of collapsing dead tree limbs, “which adds to the total fuel load out there so it can be kind of a mixed blessing.”

Yew said the long range forecast from the National Weather Service gives him additional reason to think this wildfire season will be less destructive than many.

“It’s looking like moisture levels through the spring will be at normal levels, which leads you to believe the wildfire season should be safer,” Yew said, adding that just a few days of high temperatures and “a little bit of wind” can quickly change the picture.

Yew said he hoped that a new regional incident management team assembled from departments in Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick, Page and Rockingham counties and Winchester and Harrisonburg will improve the chances of bringing any severe fires under control more quickly.

Yew said the purpose of the management team is to have trained supervisors in position at all times to provide the most effective deployment of firefighters and equipment.

The wildfire season officially runs through April 30, around the time when new vegetation turns the dry landscape moist and green.

The Virginia Department of Forestry’s ban on open air burning before 4 p.m. took effect on Saturday.

John Miller, the department’s director of resource protection, said in a news release the law is “one of the most effective tools we have to prevent wildfires.”

The law bans open air burning before 4 p.m. in or within 300 feet of woodland, brush land or fields containing dry grass.

Open air fires are permitted between 4 p.m. and midnight with proper care and precautions and any local permits that may be required.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com