The Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia area is experiencing a drought that has already put the region at a risk for wildfires. And July Fourth has foresters worried. Photo by Erica Yoon.
If you choose to use fireworks during your Independence Day celebrations, you could be lighting the fuse on a powder keg, according to area forestry officials.
They say dry weather - from front yards to forests - has left the region as dry as a tinderbox.
The Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia area is experiencing a drought that has already put the region at a risk for wildfires.
And July Fourth has foresters worried.
"We have spoken with several foresters out in our counties, and they have already voiced their concerns over fireworks," said Steve Counts, Virginia Department of Forestry regional resource specialist.
"Looking at the Cumulative Severity Index or CSI that measures potential for drought or dryness, the region is already at 483. That is a near-record high number for this time of year. Usually, that number runs at 283."
The CSI scale runs from 0 - which is total moisture saturation and no fire risk - to 800, which is desert-like conditions.
"When we see that number rise above 240, we will typically see some wildfires. Now that the number is double what it usually is, we almost expect to see some wildfires during or after July Fourth," said Counts.
"There is an extreme need for safety at this point, and that goes for any type of fire use outside. People burning debris in their back yards and those who are thinking about setting off their own fireworks prior to or on the Fourth need to be particularly aware of the surroundings outside and how dry it is."
The most frequent excuse given by those who must have professional fire suppression brought in to put out a fire they started is how quickly the fire started and got away from them once the firecracker or other firework was set, according to forestry data.
"When it's this dry, nothing can be taken to chance," Counts added.
Besides the dry weather enhancing fire chances, the Independence Day holiday also brings with it an increased risk of injury, which prompted a change in Tennessee laws.
Fireworks can only be sold between June 20 and July 5. And according to a law passed in the Tennessee General Assembly, the age requirement for purchasing fireworks will be raised to 16 beginning July 1.
According to information from State Fire Marshal Leslie Newman's office, the change was made in an effort to decrease the amount of fireworks injuries to children of elementary school age who use the fireworks improperly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in July 2005, the latest information available, more than 10,000 people were treated in emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries.
Approximately 45 percent of those injuries were to children age 14 and younger, and the majority of those injuries were burns.
The CDC also lists firecrackers as the most likely firework to cause injury, followed by rockets and sparklers.
The following are safety tips from the Virginia Department of Forestry and the CDC:
•Have a water hose, buckets of water, wet towels and a fire extinguisher nearby while setting off fireworks.
•Never let younger children set off fireworks unsupervised.
•Make sure onlookers are out of range before lighting the fuse.
•Flat paved or gravel areas are usually the best setting for a fireworks display, away from dry grass, homes and flammable materials.
•Never try to re-light fireworks that have not fully functioned.
•Let fireworks cool then soak them in a bucket of water before disposal.
For more information visit www.dof.virginia.gov or www.cdc.gov and search for "fireworks."