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Fuel to the fire: Drought, burn ban continue

“It could be bad news. I don’t know if people realize that or not.”

As a forestry specialist for the Alabama Forestry Commission, Scott Daniel is well-acquainted with wildfires and their dangers. And as the only forestry specialist assigned to Franklin County – during a burn ban in a drought situation – that danger has been thrown into even sharper relief.

Extremely dry weather conditions and low humidity provide the perfect conditions for wildfires to flourish, Daniel said, and although Franklin County has been under a no burn order since early October, Daniel said he and local fire departments continue to respond to reports of backyard burning and campfires that could easily blaze out of control. That no burn order was expanded to include all Alabama counties Monday.

“It hasn’t rained any measurable rainfall going on about two months now. All the vegetation has been going through a curing process, and with the seasons changing and the leaves dropping, that adds more dry fuel to what’s already out there,” Daniel said. Any fire has the possibility to become catastrophic quickly in these dry conditions, and Daniel said the threat is compounded by the low humidity. “We don’t want to have to be faced with that,” said Daniel, who added that almost anything could ignite in these conditions – as little as throwing a cigarette out the window. “We’re just talking about a very small spark that can start a very large fire.”

Since the first of October, a total of 1,421 wildfires have occurred in Alabama destroying approximately 15,409 acres of land. Last year during this same time frame, there were only 232 wildfires burning 1,846 acres across the state.

“We’ve been running several calls of people burning,” Russellville Fire Chief Joe Mansell concurred. “It’s too dry … As dry as it is, it won’t take much to have a pretty good fire going.”

Mansell said the RFD has been averaging one to two calls per day, to respond to reports of fires. With some of those being among the Hispanic population, Mansell said they realized news of the burn ban might not have been shared in Spanish. Mansell and Daniel set out to create notices about the ban – in English and Spanish – to provide to the local schools to send home with students.

Aside from a possible language barrier issue, Mansell said he can’t understand why people aren’t comprehending the seriousness of the current situation. In addition to the threat of out-of-control fires – Mansell said several fires they have responded to have been close to uncontainable – people found to be burning backyard fires face stiff punishments: a minimum fine of $250 and the potential of jail time.

Mansell said when a fire is called in to the emergency line, the local police or sheriff department dispatch automatically, and officers have been writing tickets and enforcing the ban. Culprits will be called in front of the judge, who will be tasked with how and to what extent to enforcement punishment. Mansell said his department has already one repeat offender.

“That could possibly lead to a stiffer punishment,” Mansell said. “It’s just a bad time right now to be burning.”

Daniel pleaded with people not to take the risk of burning during this time. Although a backyard fire might seem harmless, a fire that spread to fields or forest would require response by the AFC with heavy equipment to extinguish, and with reduced personnel and resources spread thin, it could be an hour before a forestry response unit could make it to the scene.

“We’re going to have to have some significant rainfall” before the ban is lifted, Daniel said – “at least three inches.”

Right now, Daniel said, the rainfall is 11 inches below average for the year. He has never seen it this dry.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor (droughtmonitor.unl.edu), Franklin County falls mostly in the “extreme drought” range – a situation that demands caution.

Daniel urged people spotting any fire of any kind – campfire, bonfire, field fire, wood fire – to call 9-1-1 immediately.

 

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