Burning issue: Spring brings outdoor fires

Two wildland firefighters work on a brush blaze during the Delaware Forest Service’s 19th annual Fire Camp in 2014. (Submitted photo/Delaware Forest Service)

Two wildland firefighters work on a brush blaze during the Delaware Forest Service’s 19th annual Fire Camp in 2014. (Submitted photo/Delaware Forest Service)

TOWNSEND — Nancy Butler stepped out of her home one recent afternoon and smelled a smoky, sweet aroma of wood.

She was immediately concerned; it was warm and extra windy and she knew that nobody should be tending even a small fire.

After 43 years and four nearby fires in the Blackbird Forest, Ms. Butler is keenly aware of what windy and warmer conditions can do to even a spark.

So Ms. Butler investigated further and came upon a Harvey Straughn Road neighbor on a tractor trying to smash a pile of burning logs with a bucket to tamp down the blaze.

OZONE SEASON According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control on its website, burning restrictions are in effect throughout Delaware from May 1-Sept. 30, with Sussex County now included in the statewide ban. This five-month timeframe is considered the Ozone Season. Open burning is restricted in Delaware for any refuse, including but not limited to old lumber, trash or garbage, grass and tree stumps. The burning of leaves is banned year round. Burning of cut or fallen branches, limbs or shrubbery trim from a residence is allowed throughout the state from October to April, except when the State Fire Marshal issues a ban on all outdoor burning. Delaware’s Air Quality Management Regulation 1113 defines open burning as: Any outdoor  fire or outdoor smoke producing process from which the products of combustion are emitted directly into the ambient air. This does not include incinerators, boilers, or heaters used in process operations. Five types of  open burning activities are covered by Delaware’s Open Burning Regulation: • Domestic burning of small amounts yard/garden debris by a homeowner. • Recreational burning such as cooking fires (BBQs), campfires (patio fire pits) or ceremonial bonfires (by organized groups). • Demolition of structures by intentional burning according to firefighting instruction. • Prescribed burns for forest and land management, and • Agricultural burns for crop residue, field maintenance and land clearing. For more information contact Gerald Mood at 739-9402 or Gerald.mood@state.de.us.

OZONE SEASON
According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control on its website, burning restrictions are in effect throughout Delaware from May 1-Sept. 30, with Sussex County now included in the statewide ban. This five-month timeframe is considered the Ozone Season.
Open burning is restricted in Delaware for any refuse, including but not limited to old lumber, trash or garbage, grass and tree stumps. The burning of leaves is banned year round. Burning of cut or fallen branches, limbs or shrubbery trim from a residence is allowed throughout the state from October to April, except when the State Fire Marshal issues a ban on all outdoor burning.
Delaware’s Air Quality Management Regulation 1113 defines open burning as:
Any outdoor fire or outdoor smoke producing process from which the products of combustion are emitted directly into the ambient air. This does not include incinerators, boilers, or heaters used in process operations.
Five types of open burning activities are covered by Delaware’s Open Burning Regulation:
• Domestic burning of small amounts yard/garden debris by a homeowner.
• Recreational burning such as cooking fires (BBQs), campfires (patio fire pits) or ceremonial bonfires (by organized groups).
• Demolition of structures by intentional burning according to firefighting instruction.
• Prescribed burns for forest and land management, and
• Agricultural burns for crop residue, field maintenance and land clearing.
For more information contact Gerald Mood at 739-9402 or Gerald.mood@state.de.us.

The distressed man nodded his head when Ms. Butler asked if he needed help, and she immediately called 911 and the Townsend Fire Company.

The fire spread to underbrush and the nearby woods, and eventually burned up a deer stand, boat trailer and hand cut wood for winter before being put down, Ms. Butler later heard from her neighbor.

“It was a very slow fire but crawling through the underbrush in the trees,” Ms. Butler said. “It would go up, it would go down, and then flare up again.”

The damage was relatively light compared what it could have been, Ms. Butler said.

“I’ve got 1,600 acres of forest behind me,” Ms. Butler said. “I’ve seen them get away from people who thought they could build a little fire here or there and do a small amount of burning.

“When you have a wind, that changes it a lot. Often times it isn’t the first fire but the spark from it that creates another one that becomes bigger.”

The spring warmup brings similar incidents every year, fueled by dry grass and vegetation dried out in the fields after the winter, among other factors the Delaware Fire Marshal’s Office said.

“Typically there is a spike in outdoor fires during the spring …,” Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio said.

Mr. Chionchio echoed about troublesome winds that accelerate a fire’s spreading and noted, “Open burnings account for a large majority of the unintended fires.”

To limit the chance of problems, Mr. Chionchio advised to “Pay extremely close attention to any open burning conducted. “Only conduct open burnings in compliance with DNREC regulations.

“The DNREC website has a citizen’s guide to open burning. Never burn trash or leaves. Recycle the yard waste and discontinue having open burnings.”

Improper burning can bring a criminal summons from a deputy fire marshal or DNREC environmental protection officer.

Typically, DNREC responds to most open burning investigations due to its focus on regulating clean air, officials said.

Fire marshals investigate blazes such as those intentionally and criminally set and large accidental fires originating from open burns, Mr. Chionchio said.

“If the source is not immediately known, the deputy fire marshals respond,” he said.

The DNREC Citizens Guide to open burning online at www.DNREC.delaware.gov addresses seasonal and time restrictions.

Call 911

While prescribed burns may emit large amounts of smoke visible from a significant distance, the Fire Marshal’s office said to call 911 immediately to report any sighting (controlled or otherwise) and keep people from the blaze if applicable.

“Too many injuries occur when untrained people try to fight fires,” Mr. Chionchio said.

The Delaware Forest Service said nearly all fires — intentional and unintentional — are caused by human actions.

The biggest impact on potential fire conditions are amount of time since the last rain, relative humidity (below 30 percent), temperature (65 to 70 degrees and above), and winds (15 to 20 mph or more), said James Dowd, assistant manager of Blackbird State Forest.

“Our spring fire season is the busiest,” Mr. Dowd said.

A few years back, Mr. Dowd remembered, a pine plantation in Sussex County consumed 6 to 12 feet trees in a 200 acre swath.

“For us in Delaware, that was a whopper,” he said.

At Blackbird State Forest, caretakers have access to a brush truck with a 300 gallon capacity for water and foam, and a bulldozer with a fire plow with discs that can cut under the soil, turn and flip the vegetation to slow a fire’s advance.

The state’s Forest Service has cooperative agreements with national refuges and park services, along with local fire companies, Mr. Dowd said.

This time of year, forest areas have easily combustible pine needles, hardwood leaves and branches that have fallen from trees and hardened, along with dried out leaf litter, Mr. Dowd said.

“We keep the equipment prepared at all times, watch the weather, scan fire company and 911 calls,” Mr. Dowd said.

There are 24 staff in the Delaware Forest Service responsible for parks at Blackbird (5,600 acres), Taber (1,273), and Redden (12,840).

Burning restrictions in Delaware are in effect from May 1 to Sept. 30 and what’s termed the Ozone Season. As temperatures rise, DNREC’s Gerald Mood said, the air’s susceptibility to pollutants increases,

Mr. Mood said the public regularly contacts the state to learn more about the restrictions.

“The vast majority of people respect the burn ban and material guidelines,” Mr. Mood said. “We get a lot of questions from people seeking information and saying ‘I want to do it right.’ “

Anyone with environmental complaints can call a hotline at 1-800-662-8802.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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