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Fire risk highthroughoutregion, forestryofficials say

March 13th, 2007 5:45 am by KEVIN CASTLE

East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia counties are rated moderate to high risk for fire due to dry conditions, area forestry officials say, with a number of wildfires already burning in the area.

"We haven't stopped, and every available person we have is out on a fire line," said Virginia Department of Forestry regional resource specialist Steve Kemp, whose agency has been calling in reinforcements to fight fires either accidentally or deliberately set.

Nearly 800 acres were burning Monday, said Kemp, including a 300-acre blaze in the Stone Mountain section of Lee County. Kemp said a slight majority of the cases were arson, with the rest of the fires caused by brush or trash burning that got out of control.

In addition to firefighters on the ground, the VDF is also using helicopters for fire spotting and transporting massive buckets of water to fight the fires.

Kemp noted that some fires last week were the work of railroad maintenance being conducted by Norfolk Southern Railway.

Routine rail grinding repairs caused sparks that flew into dry grass, kindling a number of wildfires.

"Our state forester plans to meet with railroad officials in the next few weeks to make sure we plan ahead so this sort of thing doesn't happen again," said Kemp.

In Tennessee, Sullivan County area forester Martin Miller said Monday that windy weather and dry conditions have caused a number of fires locally.

"People are just doing those routine spring burning chores, and the wind is forcing them to go out of control," said Miller.

"People need to stay with their fires until they are completely put out because the person may think it is completely out and the fire is calm, and then some embers may catch up and the wind could blow them into another area," Miller said.

From now until May 15, Tennessee residents can start an open outdoor fire with a permit obtained at a local Tennessee Department of Forestry office.

But Kingsport Fire Department public relations officer Barry Brickey noted that any form of outdoor burning is illegal within the city limits.

"The only exception to that law is on construction sites, where a wood fire can be built for warmth," said Brickey.

Virginia's 4 p.m. burning law prohibits residents from having an open air fire within 300 feet of woodland, brushland or fields containing dry grass or other flammable materials before 4 p.m. each day. That law is in effect until April 30.

But Kemp requested that Virginia residents delay burning until conditions are more favorable.

"We just ask that anyone who has any outdoor burning planned in the next few days to hold off on that until things improve with the weather," Kemp said. "Right now, it's too dry to burn anything."

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