'Only you can prevent forest fires'

Fire safety for the fall season
Nov. 14, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Carelessness when igniting fires for vegetational burning or for recreational enjoyment causes an unnecessary amount of brush, woods and field fires every autumn in North Carolina, especially in the rural, forested areas of Rutherford County.

While most people never intend to start a brush fire, even the best of intentions can produce accidental forest fires and damaging results when safety precautions are not taken.

According to the North Carolina Forest Service's wildlife/emergency response situation report, 45 wildfires burned about 126 acres on private and state-owned land in North Carolina on Tuesday, Nov. 12.

Across Rutherford County, the Forest Service and fire departments in Cherry Mountain, Cliffside, Ellenboro, Forest City, Green Hill, Rutherfordton, SDO, Sandy Mush and Spindale all responded to calls involving woods, brush, field or grass fires over the past week.

On some of those calls, the fires spread to nearby structures and caused significant home damage.

According to Rutherford County Ranger Doug Thompson, this is the season for these types of fires, with extremely dry conditions as people are burning leaves and yard debris.

On Saturday, Rutherfordton Fire Department responded to an out-of-control campfire that spread to nearby leaves; Sunday Cliffside firefighters were dispatched to a structure fire they believe was ignited from a brush fire that started in the yard of the dwelling; Monday Cliffside firefighters responded to another structure fire caused by the owner burning leaves; Tuesday Spindale Fire Department was dispatched to a grass fire created by a lit cigarette thrown into a pile of leaves; and Wednesday Sandy Mush, Cliffside and Ellenboro firefighters responded to a brush fire threatening a nearby structure.

"There are rules and regulations on what people can and can't burn. Everything that you burn has to be natural vegetation," said Forest City Fire Chief Mark McCurry. "You can't burn garbage, cardboard, rubber or building materials. It needs to be items that grow on the premises, according to the state regulations as far as open burning goes. The fire also has to be at least 250 feet away from a road or residence."

The open burning rule is one of North Carolina's oldest air quality regulations, according to the Division of Air Quality with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

First adopted in 1971, the rule prohibits most outdoor burning and sets conditions for allowable fires. Under the rule, it is always illegal to burn trash and other non-vegetative materials. Leaves, branches and other plant growth can be burned under certain conditions.

The best way to keep wildfire damage from occurring is to follow outdoor fire and burning safety tips provided by the North Carolina Forest Service.

Safety tips include checking local laws and ordinances to be aware of any burning restrictions or bans. During periods of elevated fire danger, fire restrictions may ban any open fire including campfires.

Anyone planning to burn should also have a burning permit and stay informed of weather conditions and changes.

"One of the best things to do is to check before you burn by looking at the weather conditions," said McCurry. "If it's going to be a windy day, don't be burning anything. Also pay attention to the humidity — if it is low, then don't burn."

It may only take a small spark or ember to ignite dry vegetation. Gusty winds and changes in wind direction can carry the burning material into surrounding vegetation and fan the flames causing the fire to rapidly spread.

Another safety tip is to carefully select the area in which to burn. Burn locations should be away from overhanging branches and utility lines, as intense heat rising from a fire could ignite leaves and branches of trees or damage overhead lines and disrupt utility services.

It is also imperative for people to stay nearby their fires and monitor burning conditions.

"People definitely want to make sure they have a good, clear area if they are going to burn," said Rutherfordton Fire Chief Tommy Blanton. "They should also make sure the fire is extinguished and never leave any fire unattended."

Cigarettes, charcoal briquettes and campfires should be properly and completely extinguished to prevent potential wildfires.

"Furthermore, if you don't have time to burn then don't," McCurry said. "You need to make sure you are there with the fire and it's entirely extinguished before you leave it."

Finally, it is always beneficial to keep water and equipment for extinguishing fires handy in case a fire should get out of control.

According to the North Carolina Forest Service, the majority of wildfires are caused by the burning of debris.

By following these outdoor fire and burning safety tips, more unnecessary wildfires involving woods, brush, fields, grass and structures could be prevented.