Dry spring raises threat of local wildfires
A much drier than normal first three months of the year has heightened the risk of wildfires across the state and kept rural firefighters like Clyde Bouch scrambling to extinguish hundreds of the blazes.
“Fire levels are very high,” Mr. Bouch, of the Plumfield Volunteer Fire Department in Indiana County, said yesterday afternoon, shortly after fighting a brush fire that charred two wooded acres. “This is one of the worst years I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve been at this for 32 years.”
On Saturday night in Jefferson County eight volunteer fire departments were called to fight a brush fire. Last Wednesday, six fire departments were called out to fight a brush fire in northern Indiana County. And on Monday nine fire departments and the Westmoreland County Rough Terrain Team responded to a brush fire in the steeply wooded “Packsaddle” section of West Wheatfield, Indiana County.
Also Monday, in Fayette County a man died from burns he suffered when a fire he started to burn tree debris got out of control.
In Washington County, state police said there were about a dozen brush fires yesterday. Most were minor, but one fire spread to a house in Canton. No injuries were reported.
Yesterday’s fire in Plumfield started when wind from a backyard trash fire blew a piece of burning paper 60 feet into a wooded area, setting the brush, dead leaves and trees on fire, said Mr. Bouch, who is also a state Department of Forestry fire warden.
“I’ve got garbage and stuff of my own I need to burn,” he said, “and stuff at my mother’s house too, but there’s no way I do it in these conditions.”
In Pennsylvania, people are responsible for 98 percent of all wildfires, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and nearly 85 percent of those fires occur in the spring.
This spring the wildfire risk is exacerbated by rainfall levels as much as 75 percent below normal in the eastern part of the state, 50 percent below normal across a broad central swath of the commonwealth and 25 percent low in the west.
No part of the state is classified as in drought conditions at this time but the low precipitation levels have triggered a meeting of the state Drought Committee, probably within the next two weeks, said Helen Humphreys, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman.
“There are four indicators of drought — precipitation, stream flow, ground water levels and soil moisture — and all are low,” Ms. Humphreys said. “It’s a situation of some concern and is creating a situation where fires are more likely to start.”
A U.S. Geological Survey Drought Condition Monitoring map shows surface water levels at drought emergency levels in Allegheny, Washington, Greene and 24 other counties across the southern third of the state.
The last dry spring, in 2006, spawned 911 fires that burned almost 8,000 acres, according to the DCNR.
“We have had a couple of significant wild fires already and almost across the whole state the probability of fires is high or very high and all the state forests are posted to that effect,” said Chris Novak, a DCNR spokeswoman. “Until the trees leaf out, it’s going to be an issue.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Ed Rendell cautioned visitors to Pennsylvania’s forests about the wildfire dangers.
“When state residents and forest visitors are careless with their smoking and trash and campfires, volunteer firefighters often pay the price, answering call after call in spring woodlands that are ripe for damaging, life-threatening wildfires,” Mr. Rendell said in proclaiming last week “Wildfire Prevention Week.”
The DCNR reminds fishermen, campers and other state forest visitors that open fires are prohibited from March 1 to May 25, and whenever fire danger is listed as high, very high or extreme.
Don Hopey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published on March 25, 2009 at 12:00 am