"We had 82 wildfires that burned 2,113 acres last year in the 12 counties of District 1. Three-fourths of those fires and more than half the acreage lost occurred in March and April," said John Henderson, assistant district forester for the Greeneville District of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture's Forestry Division.
Many of the fires resulted from carelessness.
"We tend to see several more fires during the spring months as folks start cleaning up their yards, burning their leaves and brush, or burning off their garden areas, and suddenly the fire gets away," he said.
And while most people who conduct outdoor burns mean no harm, Henderson reminds those planning a burn "to think before you burn."
Mid-February marks the traditional start of spring forest fire season in Tennessee, according to Forestry Division officials. During official fire season, Oct. 15 through May 15, state law requires citizens to get a burning permit before conducting any open, outdoor burning.
"The burning permit system is a very important wildfire prevention tool that allows us to communicate with citizens about how, when and where it is safe to burn," State Forester Steve Scott said. "By getting a burning permit, not only are you complying with the law, but you may be saving your own valuable property and possibly lives. It's that important."
A verbal burning permit can be obtained by simply calling the local Forestry Division office, listed in the phone directory under state government, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Permits are generally good for 24 hours and can be issued for weekends.
A directory of state forestry offices by county can be found on the Web at www.tennessee.gov/agriculture/forestry, click on fire information then burning permits.
Activities requiring a burning permit include unconfined, outdoor burning of brush and leaves, untreated wood waste and burning to clear land. Burning permits are required in all areas of the state unless superseded by local ordinance, so forestry officials suggest you also check with your county or city government for any local burning restrictions.
Even under ideal weather conditions, state forestry officials say that following basic fire safety tips can mean the difference between a successful debris burn and tragedy. They recommend:
â€¢ Selecting a proper location away from steep slopes, forested or dry, uncut grassy areas.
â€¢ Establishing a control line around your fire, down to bare dirt, before you burn.
â€¢ Notifying neighbors as a common courtesy.
â€¢ Having tools on hand to control your fire.
â€¢ Watching for changing weather conditions as winds can blow your fire in the wrong direction.
â€¢ And staying with your fire until it is completely out. It is illegal to leave an open fire unattended.
So far this year, nearly 400 wildfires have burned an estimated 4,400 acres in Tennessee.
Escaped debris burns are a leading cause of wildfire; however, 41 percent of the wildfires so far this year have been due to arson, which is a Class C felony punishable by three to 15 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Anyone with information about suspected arson activity should call the state Fire Marshal's Arson Hotline toll-free at (800) 762-3017.
During fire season, anyone burning without a permit is subject to a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine not to exceed $50.