Grass fires on rise

Published 8:28 pm Thursday, February 26, 2009

There were 10 reports Wednesday of grass and woods fires around the county, and local officials are urging residents to take proper precautions when doing controlled burns of property.

Kristi Stamnes, the county’s emergency management agency director, said dispatchers have noticed the increasing number of grass fire calls during the last several weeks.

“There’s definitely been what you’d call a spike in calls,” she said. “And they’re from all over the county, not just one specific area. People are trying to burn off their property to get ready for spring and things get out of hand.”

Michael Heard, district fire management officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said it is very easy for a burn to get out of control.

“A lot of grass fires are where people are burning a pile of debris — which holds heat — and then forget about it or get distracted,” Heard said. “The winds pick up and blow it out to places that haven’t been burned, and then it spreads and can get out of hand. It’s easy to happen, so people need to make sure they’re prepared.”

First, Heard recommends, notifying state and local officials of the plan to burn.

“You need to call the state and see if you need a burn permit,” he said. “They say a permit is needed for a burn of a certain size but it’s nice to notify them any time you burn.”

Secondly and most importantly, chose your burn date carefully, he said.

“If you’ve got low relative humidity and winds, don’t burn. Those are the two factors that lead to fires getting away from you,” he said. “Next, count the number of days off the last rain. How long has it been?

“Typically I recommend burning early in the morning or later in the afternoon since those are times of day when the weather is more conducive,” he said. “Everything is not as dry and the winds are usually calm.”

And lastly, be prepared in case of an emergency.

“If burning in a yard, make sure you have proper tools like a water hose to stop a fire,” he said. “And most importantly, make sure that the fire is out before leaving it. There should be no heat coming from that pile.

“Feel it,” he said. “Make sure it’s cold before you walk away.”

However, when those fires do “get away” from people, help comes in the form of countless volunteer firemen and foresters from the Alabama Forestry Commission.

Mike Older, the Covington County work unit manager/forester with the AFC, said this is the normal burn season and residents will begin to see lots of smoke in the skies as people ready their property for spring.

“Our biggest response is to woods fires,” he said. “We see anywhere from 35 to 100 a year, depending on how dry it is. Now, grass fires, volunteers handle them pretty well. They can get there quicker than we can and they do a great job. It’s nothing for them to respond five or six times a day from the end of February to April.

“The best thing to do is let someone know before you start to burn — whether it’s us in the form of a burn permit or someone at the local 911 center,” he said. “It’s a little drier than normal, so take proper precautions. Nine out of 10 times someone has said he just walked in house to get something to drink and the fire escaped. Stay with it until it’s out.”