Foresters wary of fall fire risk

By Joe Beck

Fall wildlife fire season arrived Wednesday accompanied by warnings from the Virginia Department of Forestry about the risks of burning trash and yard debris at this time of year.

More than a million Virginians living among the state’s 15.8 million forested acres are vulnerable to wildfires.

John Miller, the Department of Forestry’s director of resource protection, said in a news release that wildfires can break out in the fall under conditions similar to spring wildfire season. The fall season runs from Oct. 15 through Nov. 30.

“We didn’t have a lot of rain this summer,” Miller said, “and the dead leaves are starting to drop from the trees. This leaf litter is an abundant source of fuel for wildfires, which can spread rapidly during dry and windy days.”

State Forester Bettina Ring said 96 percent of wildfires are caused by human activity. The agency, created in 1914, began fighting wildfires in 1916 and has fought 140,000 of them since then.

John Campbell Jr., the agency’s director of public information, said most wildfires are caused by the burning of trash and yard debris.

“Typically, people don’t pay too much attention to weather conditions, so when humidity is really low and the temperature is really high, you shouldn’t be burning, regardless of the time of day or time of the year,” Campbell said.

Unlike spring when open burning is banned before 4 p.m. each day, the state has no limits on when people can burn in the fall. But Justin Barnes, senior area forester for Rockingham, Shenandoah, Warren, Page, Clarke and Frederick counties, said people should check for any restrictions that individual communities may place on fires.

“They should contact their local dispatch center to let them know they’re burning, so if we see a fire, we’ll know it’s a controlled burn,” Barnes said.

Fires can be costly to property owners in more ways than one. A fire that escapes from one property can leave the owner liable for the costs of extinguishing the fire and any damage to neighboring property.

The cost of stopping a wildfire can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on its size and complexity.

“Add to that the cost of burning down your neighbor’s home or barn, and you could be looking at millions of dollars,” Miller said. “Is it really worth all that just to burn some trash?”

The amount of damage reported statewide during recent fall fire seasons has varied from a low of six fires burning 56 acres in 2011 to a high of 2,589 aces scorched by 65 fires in 2010 and 93 fires that burned 1,573 acres in 2012.

There were 105 fires on 318 acres in 2013.

State officials report no one from the agency or anyone fighting fires with agency employees has died in recent years, although there were two fatalities attributed to people trying to stop fires on their own.

“Firefighting is dangerous and demanding work,” Ring said, adding that, “it’s much better to dial 911 right away and let trained wildland firefighters respond and suppress those fires.”

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