The statutory spring wildfire season began March 1 and will run through May 31.
It’s one of two times of the year — the other being the fall wildfire season — when wildfires are most likely to occur in West Virginia. The reason for this is simple — when there are no leaves on the trees, there is no shade to keep the forest floor moist and the leaf litter dries out quickly, making it ready to easily catch fire.
Also, other potential wildfire fuels like grasses and stickweeds are dried out at these times of the year and available as fuel for a fire.
During the wildfire seasons it is illegal to burn between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. This time period includes the hottest, driest and windiest times of the day, especially the afternoon, when a wildfire is most likely to get started.
There are exceptions to outdoor burning during the prohibited hours:
- Campfires, if properly built, watched and extinguished when left.
- Burning done when there is at least an inch of snow on the ground.
- Burning for which a permit has been obtained from the Division of Forestry.
Permits are generally not issued to individuals, but to commercial enterprises and cost $125. State law requires that a 10-foot wide safety strip be made around each burn site. This is done by removing all dried leaves and grass, and any other flammables, to prevent the fire from walking off into the woods.
State law also requires — and this is the most important as regards any outdoor fire — that the fire be constantly attended until totally extinguished. Don’t be fooled by a bed of ashes showing no smoke. The chances are strong that live embers are under those ashes. It will only take a little wind to blow the ashes off and start scattering the embers. Always stir the ash bed, find the embers, and put them out before you leave. It is not uncommon for a fire to escape from a burn site that was assumed to be out even several days after it was left.
There are some common sense measures that can be taken to prevent wildfires, as well. Don’t burn on windy days. Don’t build a fire against the base of a hill — the embers will draft up the hillside with the hot air from the fire. And don’t burn a pile that is bigger than you can control or that will not be out before 7 a.m.
Fines for violations of the outdoor burning laws can be assessed as high as $1,000 for each violation. If a fire escapes control and causes a wildfire, those determined responsible will be sent the bill for all the costs incurred by the state in suppressing the wildfire.
All landowners are required to render all practicable assistance in suppressing any wildfire on their property. Failure to render assistance may result in the suppression cost bill being sent to them. The deliberate setting of fires on the lands of another is a felony, punishable by one to five years in prison.
Last fall’s wildfire season (October-December) was a light one for Mason County, with only two wildfires burning less than three acres. One fire was caused by a campfire and the other by a tree that grew into a power line.
Statewide, it was a light season as well, with 293 fires burning 14,405 acres. Disturbingly, 93 of those fires were arson, and they accounted for 6,652 of the acres burned. To date, there have been arrests in 13 of those fires with investigations ongoing in the remainder.
The second-biggest cause was from equipment use, which mostly involved powerlines — 82 fires that burned 1,203 acres.
The third biggest cause was in the miscellaneous category and was mostly the result of mine breaks — 35 fires burning 5,600 acres. A mine break is a burning coal seam. There were 65 debris burning caused fires, but they only accounted for 257 acres. In most wildfire seasons, debris burning is the No. 1 cause. The rest of the wildfires were caused by children, campfires, railroads, smokers and lightning.
Wildfires in West Virginia are preventable. Ninety-nine percent of them are the result of human activity. Only 1 out of every 100, on average, are caused by lightning in this state. These fires damage timber, and impact water and air quality.
It’s a public safety issue, as well. Once a wildfire gets loose, there’s no telling where it’s going to stop and what may be burned up in its’ path. It could be someone’s home.
Tom Withrow is a fire forestert with the West Virginia Division of Forestry.