Local ‘Wildlands’ face new fire threats

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 12, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

With all the rain and slush on the ground, it’s hard to imagine spring is coming. But with the drying winds comes a danger – wildfires, and the Virginia Department of Forestry has issued its annual 4 p.m. Burning Ban.

Scott Bachman, area forester for Suffolk and Isle of Wight, explained that the ban simply means that outdoor fires are unlawful before 4 p.m., and that law is in force beginning Sunday and running through April 30.

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&uot;The 4 p.m. Burning Law comes into effect each spring and is different from the burning bans, which are invoked only during periods of extreme fire danger,&uot; Bachman said. &uot;This means that no burning before 4 p.m. is permitted if the fire is in, or within 300 feet of, woodland, brush land or fields containing dry grass or other flammable material. &uot;That’s because debris burning continues to be the leading cause of forest fires in Virginia, and this year in particular, we are extremely concerned.&uot;

The forester added that with the sale of much of the farmland of Suffolk comes more urban sprawl, and most of the area where homes are mushrooming is surrounded by stands of timber or woodlands.

In fact, the new buzzword with the VDOF is &uot;Wildland Urban Interface,&uot; a term indicating the burgeoning growth of homes in formerly rural areas.

&uot;Suffolk’s residents may face an issue this year that comes as another result of Hurricane Isabel,&uot; he said. &uot;There may not be a lot of additional fires, but the problem comes in from the fact that the debris could be blocking the way into a fire zone.&uot;

Generally, firefighters and foresters can negotiate their way into a fire zone with bull dozers and fire trucks, however, with the great number of large fallen trees, they could run into serious problems.

&uot;Normally, we’re right on the edge of fires and we can stop them before they engulf the entire woodlands,&uot; Bachman said. &uot;With all these downed trees, we may not be able to get that close to the fire.&uot;

Living in a house surrounded by nature and woodlands can be peaceful and beautiful, but it can also be risky, he continued.

&uot;Residents in rural areas may have a &uot;back to nature’ philosophy to leave their property and all of the property around them as undisturbed as possible,&uot; said Bachman. &uot;This philosophy can also lead to insufficient access roads and hazardous fuel conditions near homes, creating a dangerous situation for rural homeowners and firefighters in the event of a wildfire.&uot;

He added that since forest fuels cure during the winter months, the danger of fire is higher in early spring than in summer when the forest and grasses are green with new growth.

&uot;Fire-wise Principles&uot; are VDOF guidelines for subdivision and home design to increase the chances a community will survive a wildfire. Bachman suggested that home designs should include a safe location for the house and the use of less combustible materials. Subdivision designs should include proper access and turn-arounds, suitable signage, and adequate water supplies for fire control.

The forester also offered the following tools and recommendations as safety steps that will give a home a chance to survive while firefighters race to bring the wildfire under control.