Dry conditions heighten threat of wildfires

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 16, 2006

If you happen to see Rodney Black, Michael Hughes or Rudy Whitehurst performing a rain dance ritual, don’t think for a minute that they are candidates for physiological testing.

Rather, the respective Forest Service rangers for Northampton, Hertford and Bertie counties are begging for the heavens to open and a deluge of rain to follow.

All three men, their crews and firefighters throughout the region and state are on edge due to extremely dry conditions. Due to a lack of rain coupled with low humidity levels and high winds, the National Weather Service and the N.C. Division of Forest Resources issued a red flag warning on Wednesday for most of North Carolina. With a forecast calling for dry weather over the next seven days, the local Forest Service rangers doubt the red flag warning, one that means dry and windy conditions will produce an increased threat of wildfires, will be lifted anytime soon.

“As usual this time of year, the subsoil is cool and damp, but it’s the fine fuels on top that are of major concern with these dry and windy days,” Whitehurst said. “The humidity is also of great concern. It’s been extremely low over the past few weeks, adding to the threat of wildfires.”

Whitehurst, who has an automated weather station at the Forest Service office near Windsor, said the humidity stood at 13 percent Wednesday morning.

Hughes and Hertford County crews were on the run on Monday, answering five calls for forest fires. One, near Cofield, consumed 14 acres.

“This looks to be one of the worst fire seasons in a long time,” Hughes said. “The conditions are ripe for wildfires.”

Monday’s outbreak in Hertford County had the potential to be much worse, but Hughes and his crew were aided by a scout plane and helicopter from the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources’ regional office in Kinston, an extra tractor from Chowan County and additional manpower from Bertie County.

To date, no structures have been lost, but Hughes said there have been several close calls.

He also thanked the hard work of the local fire departments for their assistance in fighting these fires.

Black also credited the volunteer fire departments in Northampton County for helping to knock down the fires before they had a chance to become a major blaze.

“The last couple of weeks have been awful,” Black said. “It’s setting up to be a very active fire season.”

While Black said there is not a burning ban in Northampton County, he strongly advised all citizens to just use common sense.

“The best advice right now is not to burn at all, but if you feel you have to, please wait until the wind has died down and please keep water, a shovel and a rake at arm’s length just in case,” Black said. “We’re six inches below normal in rainfall right now and with these strong winds and low humidity levels, the potential looms for wildfires.”

Even a passing shower in Bertie County on Tuesday morning wasn’t enough to prevent the spread of two fires.

Whitehurst said three-one hundredths of one inch fell on Tuesday, but a residential fire on Woodard Road spread to a nearby woods.

“We got it under control rather quickly, but not before it destroyed a $20,000 truck,” Whitehurst said.

He added that three barns had been destroyed by previous fires.

“I would suggest to all citizens to refrain from doing any burning until this dry weather pattern breaks,” Whitehurst noted.

As of last Friday, North Carolina had reported 1,996 wildfires during 2006, a little above average for this time of year. North Carolina experiences roughly 5,000 wildfires per year, but foresters and meteorologists are predicting a busy season this year because weather models indicate North Carolina will not receive significant rainfall through the rest of March.

“Check the forecast before you start burning,” Hughes continued. “Keep your yard vegetation in small, manageable piles when you are burning and keep fire tools ready. To control a fire, you will need to a hose, a bucket, a steel rake and a shovel for tossing dirt on the fire.

“You can only legally burn stuff that grows on your property,” Hughes added. “It is illegal to burn trash.”

According to the NC Division of Forest Resource, the number one cause of wildfires in North Carolina is debris burning or people burning yard vegetation.

The Division of Forest Resources encourages people to obtain an approved burning permit before burning and to check with local government officials because burning may only be allowed during specific hours.

Rules to follow include:

Do not burn if conditions are too dry or windy.

Consider alternatives to burning.

Do not burn household trash or other man-made materials.

If you must burn, use a shovel or hoe to clear a perimeter around the area around where you plan to burn.

Never use flammable liquids such as kerosene, gasoline or diesel fuel to speed debris burning.

Stay with your fire until it is completely out. Human careless leads to more wildfires than any other cause.

(Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald Editor Cal Bryant and Staff Writer Thadd White contributed to this story.)