- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Authorities in Maryland and Virginia are battling a rash of wildfires driven by dry conditions and strong winds that have made the region a tinderbox in recent weeks.

“It’s big time,” said John Campbell, a Virginia Department of Forestry spokesman. “We haven’t seen conditions like this for five years.”

About 150 firefighters were called yesterday to control a wildfire in the Severn Run Environmental Area that destroyed nearly 150 acres by nightfall.

Lt. Frank Fennell, an Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesman, said the fire started around noon and that 45 recruits were pulled from a training academy to assist.

“It’s very labor intensive,” he said. “There are no roads back in there, just trails. Everything’s being done by hand.”

He said the blaze may have been started by a group of homeless people making a campfire.

In Prince George’s County, firefighters yesterday were still battling flare-ups from a 17-acre fire that started Wednesday on land near Route 301 and Branch Avenue, said Mark Brady, a county fire department spokesman.

“It will probably never be completely extinguished until we get a decent amount of precipitation,” he said.

No deaths have been reported as a result of the fires. But a fire Wednesday on Solomon’s Island in Calvert County caused $5 million in damage to two landmark restaurants.

Virginia firefighters yesterday battled blazes in Clarke and Gloucester counties.

National Weather Service officials said the fires are being stoked by unusually high winds, low humidity and dry brush throughout the area and across the country. Wildfires have moved across nearly 1 million acres in Texas and have threatened homes near Oklahoma City.

Forecasters have lifted a “red flag” warning for fires that they issued Wednesday for the District, Maryland and Virginia, but said the precipitation expected last night and today would provide only some relief.

“This is something that has really been going on for the last couple months,” Weather Service meteorologist Jim Lee said. “It’s an active time firewise pretty much across the country.”

Mr. Campbell said 628 wild-land fires have been reported in Virginia from Jan. 1 to yesterday — 97 more than the total Wednesday and about a 400 percent increase compared with the same period last year. More than 4,100 acres have been burned.

“The main thing is it has been tremendously dry,” he said. “We’re down over 4 inches of rain. There has not been any significant rainfall across the state at all [and] the high winds are knocking the socks off of us.”

Maryland Forest Service officials said Wednesday firefighters had responded to more than 160 wildfires that burned 363 acres in the past two weeks, which already exceeds the average of 130 fires for March.

For 2006, the agency has responded to 265 wildfires that have burned more than 5,450 acres.

“This type of activity isn’t seen until sometime in April; then it will stop when the humidity starts to rise in the area,” Mr. Brady said. “We actually responded to as many as 50 fires [Wednesday] outdoors, whether it be brush, piles of mulch or what have you.”

Virginia has a restriction in place from Feb. 15 until April 30 that prohibits open-air fires before 4 p.m. and after midnight every day.

Open-air burning is legal in some parts of Maryland, but officials are urging residents not to burn anything outdoors until the state receives at least 1 inch of rain.

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