State burn rules kick in as fire season starts early

State burn rules kick in as fire season starts early

17 February 2008

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USA — The state’s open-air burn law began Friday, but this year, spring fire season started early.

On Feb. 10, the VirginiaDepartment of Forestry reported 324 wildfires, shattering the 40-year-old record of 88 fires in a single day. The fires burned at least 13,148 acres of privately owned land — 2,000 acres more than all of what burned in 2007, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said in a news release.

Locally, fires raged in Suffolk and Hampton, and Isle of Wight, New Kent County and Charles City counties.

“I hope that we never break, tie or even come close to this record ever again,” State Forester Carl E. Garrison III said.

The ban, which starts every year on Feb. 15, prohibits burning before 4 p.m. through April 30 if the fire is in, or within 300 feet of woodland, brush or fields of dry grass. Debris burning remains the No.1 cause of fires in Virginia.

The law was created in the 1940s because of an increased amount of fires that typically occurred in the spring, when it’s windy and dry. After 4 p.m., winds usually calm down and relative-humidity levels increase, reducing the potential for an outdoor open-air fire to rage out of control.

Violating the law is a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine. Violators are also liable for the cost of suppressing the fire and the damage to others’ property.

Suffolk Fire Capt. James Judkins Jr. said the burn law is a “very effective tool in preventing the spread of fire.”

“It makes people aware of the dangers,” he said.

Despite a few days of rain, Hampton Roads is undergoing a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of North Carolina is facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

“We’re going to need a substantial rain at least every two to five days — that’s the word we got from the National Weather Service in Wakefield — to keep us from having any major brush fires this spring,” Judkins said.

“The fuel out there is unbelievably dry,” Judkins said. “Several of the big fires we had were from people discarding cigarettes. It doesn’t take much to start a raging inferno.”

Last weekend, more than 740 firefighters across the state battled the blazes, and about 100 Virginia National Guard soldiers received training in wildfire suppression after being called up Sunday night after the governor declared a state emergency. Soldiers were assigned to large fires in Bedford and Roanoke counties.

Judkins suggests keeping burn piles small, only 2 feet by 2 feet, to make sure the fire doesn’t escape control. Anyone who wants to burn should check on regulations with fire officials.

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