This year's dry and relatively warm November days provide perfect conditions for brush fires in Washington County.
There have been at least five brush fires that required response from local fire departments so far this season, according to the Washington County Sheriff's Office.
"We've had four or five in our district-nothing real major. The biggest was probably around 10 acres," said Ron Warren, chief of the Little Muskingum Volunteer Fire Department.
Chief Mark Wile, with the Warren Volunteer Fire Department, checks gauges and controls on the department’s 2-year-old brush truck. The vehicle can haul 200 gallons of water to fight brush fires.
SAM SHAWVER The Marietta Times
He said most brush fires-also called wildfires by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources-are started by someone burning trash or leaves.
"People need to keep a close watch when burning outdoors, because once it starts a brush fire can spread really quick," Warren said. "When burning trash they should put a screen over the top of the burn barrel to keep ashes from flying into the air and possibly causing a fire."
The Ohio DNR reports an average of 1,000 wildfires destroy between 4,000 and 6,000 acres of Ohio grassland and forest land every year. And there are an estimated 15,000 wildfire and other natural fuel fires (grass, leaves, trees, vegetation) statewide in a typical year.
Tips to help
If you burn leaves and debris, consider composting instead.
Make sure recreational fires are made in a fire-safe pit or container and completely extinguished before leaving.
Before lighting any outdoor fire, check for local restrictions and permit requirements.
Avoid lighting fires when high winds, high temperatures and low humidities are present or predicted.
Do not dispose of ashes until they are cold to the touch.
Store gasoline, oily rags and other flammable materials in approved safety cans. Keep those safety cans in a fire-resistant metal or brick building or your garage.
Are there any branches close to power lines on your property? Ask the power company to clear them.
Source: www.dnr.state.oh.us -Tips provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Firewise Program
During Ohio's wildfire seasons-March, April and May in the spring, and October and November during the fall-open burning is prohibited between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in unincorporated areas throughout the state.
"Normally after 6 p.m. the winds have died down and there's dew on the grass, so there's less chance of a fire," Warren explained.
He said manpower can be a problem during brush fires, especially those that occur during daytime hours when most volunteer firefighters are at work.
"A small fire may require four or five firefighters, but several fire companies may have to be called out on larger brush fires," Warren said.
Greg Fisher with the Barlow VFD added that brush fires are also time-consuming for local fire companies.
"We had a fire a couple of weeks ago that took an hour-and-a-half to bring under control. But the overhaul (checking for burning undergrowth and other hot spots) made it a five-hour fire," he said.
Fisher said people are surprised by how quickly a brush fire can spread out of control.
"Even after a rain, the ground underneath quickly dries up and leaves and grass can easily catch fire," he said.
But Fisher said the wetter the weather, the better for fire prevention.
"People don't like to hear it sometimes, but the best thing is to have a nice snowy winter that packs down vegetation and keeps it wet," he said.
During a normal year Fisher said Barlow VFD may respond to a couple of brush fires.
"But then in some years we've had eight to 12 in a month," he added.
Like Little Muskingum's VFD, Barlow also has to deal with limited manpower to fight brush fires.
"The state doesn't have many resources to offer, although we can call on them for a larger fire," Fisher said.
Both Warren and Fisher said brush fires can spread to homes or other buildings, causing far more costly damage.
But there are other hazards, too, like natural gas lines that often lie on or just below the ground surface in rural areas.
"We try to determine if there are any gas lines in the area when setting up a perimeter around a brush fire," Warren said. "It doesn't take long for a fire to melt through a plastic gas line and that can create a real problem."
Chief Mark Wile said the Warren Township Volunteer Fire Department recently had some first-hand experience with a burned gas line.
"A man was burning leaves in a ditch where a gas line ran underneath a roadway," he said. "Part of the line was exposed and the fire burned it in two."
Wile said the ruptured line looked like a blowtorch when the fire hit it.
"We were able to track the line to the gas well where we closed off the valve then contacted the well owner," he said.
Fighting a brush fire can be expensive, too, Wile said, noting the wear and tear on hoses and other equipment, as well as the use of a special foam fire suppressant by the department's brush truck.
He added that, unlike structure fires, a brush fire is a moving target that can spread into areas of a field or forest that may be inaccessible to vehicles. A spreading fire may also require redirection of personnel and equipment, which can cause delays in putting the blaze out.
Several million acres are burned annually across the United States due to wildfires, according to the Ohio DNR Web site.
In contrast to the human-caused fires of the Eastern U.S., many western wildfires are caused by lightning and often burn for extended periods of time, resulting in massive loss of natural resources and property.