Spring wildfire season underway

Virginia's spring wildfire season runs through April 30, and the state's burn law is now in effect. This photo is of a wildfire that occurred in 2005 in the counties of Dinwiddie and Nottoway. Courtesy photo by the Virginia Department of Forestry

Sunday marked the beginning of the Virginia Department of Forestry’s spring wildfire season.

Virginia’s burn law permits residents to burn fires only between 4 p.m. and midnight now through April 30 within 300 feet of forest, brush or sensitive grass.

The 4 p.m. time, Lehnen said, applies to everyone burning any kind of fire, regardless of location.

For larger fires outside of brush piles, local fire and rescue squads can issue “burn permits” to any agency or resident.

Gray Yew, chief of Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue, said that burn permits “apply to anybody, specifically if they’re doing any kind of land clearing.”

According to Yew, Shenandoah County can issue between 20 or 30 permits in a given year.

Although Yew said that the permit requests are “spread out throughout the year,” there is a slight seasonal aspect to it.

“We do get a few extra requests this time of year, especially earlier in the year … because people are trying to get those burns in before the state law comes in to play,” Yew said.

Joe Lehnen, area forester for the Northern Shenandoah region, noted, “Technically, if it is outside of that 300-foot range, they could [burn a fire].”

However, Lehnen said, “Right now, considering how the grass and everything is dormant, it would be pretty hard to find a place where you could burn outside of that range.”

According to Lehnen, dry grass – as well as dry, humid-less air – can “absolutely” aid in the spread of fire.

“Dry grass will help spread fire whether it is a field or along the interstate,” he said, “This time of year, the conditions are such that it is definitely more flammable than any other time of year.”

That is why, Lehnen noted, the state adopted the 4 p.m. burn law.

In 2014, the Virginia Department of Forestry reported 53 forest fires in the region: nine in Shenandoah County, 10 in Page County, seven in Warren County, 19 in Frederick County and eight in Clarke County.

Lehnen explained that the number of fires per year varies depending on weather conditions.

“If we have adequate moisture that is fairly regular … like once a week, the numbers of fire incidences are not that great,” he said.

Yew noted that debris and brush fire is still the No. 1 cause of wildfires in the county as well as the state.

Depending on the season, Yew said, “I have seen it, at times, where it represents as much as 30 or 40 percent of the total fire call volume for the county.”

However, Yew agreed with Lehnen that a spring season with a lot of moisture or humidity can reduce the number of wildfire calls.

Yew said that 2014 was “one of those years” with a lower volume of incidences. The county had around 10 or 12 calls concerning wildfires.

In the case of wildfires, Yew said that the county and department of forestry “keep open communications” and “depend on each other a great deal during fire season.”

“Fire departments are set up to do initial attack operations on wildfires,” Yew explained.

As the fires grow in intensity, however, Yew said that the county will “depend on the Department of Forestry to come in with specialized crews and equipment.”

In addition, Yew said that the department does prefer the control burns that require a permit. “They always let us know when those are taking place.”

At the same time, Yew said, “If we have permitted a burning operation, we also let them know.”

Lehnen said that if a fire “does get away, and we have to respond, then [the resident] is responsible to the commonwealth for all of the costs incurred for putting a fire out.”

Both Lehnen and Yew expressed the importance of residents to practice the proper safety measures when performing any kind of burn.

The website for the Department of Forestry contains safety tips as well as a link to the 4 p.m. burn law here: http://tinyurl.com/m39w758.

Yew noted that residents should make sure to “have a good buffer around the piles that [they] intend to burn” as well as to not “do it on a windy day or during periods of little or no rainfall.”

In addition, Yew added that residents should have hand-tools nearby as well as water available “should the fire escape.”

Lehnen said, “We obviously know that people are going to burn, we just want them to do it safely.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com