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As drought drags on, forestry officials are bracing for busy fall fire season

Kevin Castle • Oct 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Warriors Path Volunteer Fire Department firefighters battle a brush fire off Robinwood Road in this March file photo. Erica Yoon.


Dry conditions in area forests continue to creep toward desert levels, leaving area forestry officials to expect a busy fall fire season.

“The situation is so severe that people must go above the normal precautions if they burn outside or anything to do with fire outdoors right now. We think the typical fire season will not be typical this year,” said John Miller, Virginia Department of Forestry resource protection director.

The National Weather Service office in Morristown puts the majority of counties in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee in the D3, “extreme drought,” boundary, just one level above the D4, or “exceptional” boundary.

Portions of the region are at the D4 drought level. NWS classified that area as a line extending from Viking Mountain in Greene County north to Church Hill in Hawkins County, Black Mountain near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and all of Lee County in Virginia.

A portion of Scott County in Virginia is also included in the D4 boundary.

Rainfall amounts ranged from a trace to one-tenth of an inch, according to NWS rain gauges. Their recorders also registered only one lengthy day of rain in the past 30 days, on Sept. 27.

“This means that a tossed cigarette, a campfire or even a barbecue could start a large fire,” the NWS said in a news release.

“Morning dew with the mostly clear skies has kept smaller fuels (lying on the forest floor) more moist the last two weeks. However, in the next week much lower afternoon humidities will dry out forests even faster.”

Year-to-date precipitation levels put the Tri-Cities at 16 inches below normal as of midnight Friday.

A solution that would eliminate three-fourths of the fires crews have to fight in area forests would be to impose a ban to prohibit area residents from burning brush and other items, but that isn’t likely to happen for at least a few weeks.

“There are businesses out there that use burning as a measure of controlling their waste as a cost-effective step. There are a lot of forces out there who do not want a ban in place,” said Miller.

“We are cautious not to be too proactive and shut things down before we have a problem. You then have a problem as to when you take the ban off, hoping that you have a break in the weather. So that is why the state has been slow to institute such a ban.

“I would say we are three to four weeks away from considering such a ban because of the official start of the fall burning season on October 15th. Unless we see a drastic increase in fire activity, you probably won’t see a ban in place until then if needed.”

More than 3,000 acres have burned in District 1 of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry, which encompasses the area from the Tennessee state line near Virginia westward to Greeneville.

The agency reports 57 of those fires were arson related, 39 fires were the result of escaped debris burning, and 35 fires were from other sources.

The latest Forest Fire Summation Report from the Virginia Department of Forestry reveals more acres have burned in the Region 6 Abingdon area than in any other part of the state.

More than 5,600 acres had been burned over the course of the year in an area that stretches from the state line in Lee County to the outskirts of Roanoke.

“People need to recognize that there is a greater potential for fires to escape because of conditions caused by the ongoing drought,” Miller said.

“Grass on the ground and leaves on the trees have dried to a point where things will have a potential to fire up very quickly, and areas that have never seen fire before could see burning because of how dry it is.

“Once the frost takes hold and the leaves on the trees begin to fall, that will further increase the potential for fire once they hit the ground and dry out. That’s just adding more fuel.”

Using more water to extinguish a fire, staying and monitoring a fire longer, and extending fire break lines in the ground are just some of the suggestions that Miller recommends for those who choose to burn outside.

More tips are available at the following Web sites:


•state.tn.us/agriculture/forestry/ (Click on Fire Information.)

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