- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It’s not nice to blame Mother Nature — especially when it comes to wildfires.

Only about 2 percent of all wildfires are started by natural means — lightning; the other 98 percent can be blamed on humans, says John Fisher of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Forest Service in Brandywine.

“We teach young children not to play with matches or lighters,” says Mr. Fisher, the regional fire manager for the service. “We teach residents to keep their houses free of flammable materials.”

A quarry fire that began on March 3 in Bedford County, Va., burned for 21 days after a homeowner dumped ashes from a wood stove in his back yard, says Zeph Cunningham, a park ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, part of the National Park Service.

The blaze traveled over 1,200 acres and threatened more than 100 homes. A helicopter from the Virginia Department of Forestry in Charlottesville and fire engines and firefighters from California, Oregon and Montana were used to stop the fire.

The man who started the blaze has been charged with negligence, a misdemeanor. Although charges vary from fire to fire, negligence is the standard charge for people who accidentally start wildfires in Maryland or Virginia. A person can be charged with a felony, however, especially if a firefighter is injured or killed. The punishment usually depends on the severity of the fire, Mr. Cunningham says.

An average of 1,426 fires per year burned across an average of 9,044 acres over the past 10 years in Virginia, he says.

Removing a fire’s fuel source — trees, leaves and branches, for example — can stop a fire, he says. Firefighters use hand tools and bulldozers to dig down to mineral soil, soil that contains nothing that will burn, to create trenches that contain the blaze to certain areas. The trenches can be up to 1 foot in depth and width, depending on the type of vegetation in the area.

Helicopters can be used to drop water, creating a wet line or water line, which also will deprive the fire of fuel.

During the quarry fire, the humidity was 8 percent. Because it was so low, there was no moisture in the fuels, and it created an explosive situation.

“When the fire is going, the biggest uncontrollable factor is the weather,” Mr. Cunningham says. “We bring in a meteorologist to help determine what the fire will do.”

Along with the fuel and the weather, topography is the third contributing factor that influences a wildfire, Mr. Cunningham says. It affects how quickly the fire burns. The quarry fire started at the bottom of a steep mountain, so the flames ran up the mountain quickly, he says. On the contrary, when a fire burns down a hill, it travels much more slowly.

If the fire cannot be put out because of weather and topography, the firefighters may have to let it burn, Mr. Cunningham says.

“If it’s going to burn anyhow, you basically control the fire to your benefit,” he explains. “In the first three days of the quarry fire, the environment controlled us.”

The method firefighters use to direct a fire is greatly influenced by endangered and protected species in the area, he says. If a portion of land had a special species, attempts would be made to direct the fire in a different path. The same is true for archaeological and historical sites.

The table mountain pine, however, requires fire to reproduce. The fire’s heat causes the pine cones to explode and scatter their seeds. As long as the fire isn’t too hot, firefighters allow it to burn. If it’s too hot, it kills everything, Mr. Cunningham says.

Ecosystems that contain certain species, such as the lodgepole pine in Yellowstone National Park, are meant to burn every 80 to 100 years, says Tina Boehle, fire communications and education specialist with the National Park Service in Boise, Idaho.

The sequoia trees in Sequoia and King’s Canyon national parks also need fire to regenerate, she says.

“I always tell people that fire isn’t good or bad,” Ms. Boehle says. “It’s a natural process that has been here for millennia. It’s part of the landscape.”

After the fire is finished, rehabilitation efforts put dirt, leaves and branches back in the trenches that were dug, Mr. Cunningham says. A water bar also may be placed to stop erosion, most likely a log that is put across a slope to keep the water from creating a new stream.

If the area has native vegetation, workers may seed the soil and cover it with straw and limestone to prevent erosion. They also will put barriers in naturally wet areas to keep sediment from mixing in the water.

“The quarry fire had a [sensitive, wet area] where we didn’t allow any fire lines to be dug,” Mr. Cunningham says. “We would have done more damage by putting a line through than just letting it burn. It might have caused erosion.”

The American Indians used fire not only to renovate and rejuvenate an area, but also for hunting, says Jack Jones, chief of fire and rescue in Bedford, Va.

“They would position the fire in a certain area so the animals would run out, and then they would shoot them,” Mr. Jones says. “After the quarry fire, the turkey population should be phenomenal. As small roots are surfacing and buds are growing from the ground, the turkeys will feed off it.”

Despite all the good reasons for a fire, people still should take precautions to protect themselves, says Don Boucher, fire and emergency program manager with the National Park Service’s National Capital Region in Southwest.

“People should be cautious with any burning materials, like cigarettes and matches,” Mr. Boucher says. “We’ve had a number of wildfires in D.C. Typically, when it shows up on the evening news, they are called brush fires. We’ve had a couple this spring along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.”

An afternoon with a rake, a pair of clippers and a ladder can do a lot of good, says Barb Stewart, fire education specialist with the Northeast region of the National Park Service in Charlottesville. Regularly clearing debris away from a home can prevent it from being an easy target in case of a wildfire.

“Make sure you rake the dry leaves and downed branches away from the house,” Ms. Stewart says. “Make sure the gutters are clear and the roof is clear. Prune dead branches near a house. Have a woodpile away from the house. Rake around a propane tank to the green grass or mineral soil.”

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