Caution advised during fall wildfire season

Published 3:20 am Thursday, November 1, 2018

Despite the heavy rains across Virginia this year, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) urges caution as the state’s wildfire season gets underway.

Although the National Weather Service offices covering Virginia have indicated that most of the state has already received as much, if not more, rain than usual for the entire year, John Miller, VDOF Resource Protection Division director, urges residents to not be lulled into a false sense of security.

“This year is kind of an anomaly,” said Miller. “Everything is very wet right now and the risk of wildfire is low; but all it takes is a few days of dry weather and the risk significantly increases.”

Email newsletter signup

Fall is historically a busy time for brush and wildfires in the state due to the drier weather and the turning of the leaves. With many trees bare, more sunlight and seasonably higher winds will reach the forest floor, further drying out brush, leaves and vegetation. Combined with the lower average humidity in fall, the only missing ingredient to a potentially devastating fire is a single spark.

“Our traditional leaf fall is running late this year and will put a lot of leaves on the ground,” Fred Turck, VDOF Wildfire Prevention Program manager, said. “Once they dry out, they become the perfect fuel for a potential fire.”

About 96 percent of wildfires in Virginia are started by humans. Outdoor burning is the leading cause, with arson coming in second. Since most wildfires are caused by human activity, changes in behavior can help save lives and property.

“Houses have burned down from fires that started when people were burning debris and brush picked up from their yard. The fire started as a controlled burn, and it just got away from them,” Turck said. “So, it is important to be aware of weather conditions and take all the factors into account before burning debris.”

Use extreme caution with any outdoor burning or fires and help prevent wildfires by following the suggestions below.

Think about debris-burning alternatives, such as composting and mulching.

If you have to burn, before igniting a fire take precautions such as clearing all dry grass and leaves from around your burn pile for at least 10 feet; clearing the burn spot and surrounding area down to mineral soil; keeping the burn pile small; having water and tools like a shovel or a rake on hand; ensuring a charged water hose or other water source is at the ready; having a working cellphone with you so that you can call 911 as soon as the fire escapes your control, and remaining with the fire until it’s completely out. 

You must also check the weather conditions in your area before you start to burn. If it’s been several days since it’s rained, humidity levels are low and the winds are higher than 10 miles per hour, wait until conditions improve; otherwise, it’s quite likely your fire will become a wildfire.

If a fire escapes your control, call 911 immediately.

If a fire does escape a person’s control or is left unattended that person is financially liable for the cost of suppressing the wildfire as well as any damage that occurs as a result. Depending on the size and complexity of the wildfire, suppression costs alone could range from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.