Take Action! May is Wildfire Awareness Month

May 1, 2021 is Wildfire Community Preparedness Day and the entire month of May is considered National Wildfire Awareness Month. The Virginia Department of Forestry is joining in to dedicate May to prevention and preparedness. 

Prevention and suppression of wildfires is a key part of the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) mission; the agency achieves this through education, as well as responding to and suppressing wildfires. 

VDOF responders suppress more than 700 wildfires each year, protecting lives, forests and property. Fire can be an important component of healthy landscapes. But unplanned, unwanted wildfires especially in developed landscapes, fire can also be devastating, causing loss and harm to people and property. Managing fire in the landscape is critical to maintain healthy forestland and safe communities.

Smokey Bear says, “Repeat after me, ‘Only you … ” (1977). Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library.

Protecting the people and forests of Virginia is a concerted effort; VDOF works alongside many local paid and volunteer fire departments, state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, and national organizations like the National Interagency Fire Center and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Together, these partners work with and for the hundreds of thousands of citizens of the Commonwealth living in what is referred to as the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI – the zone where structures meet with woods or wildlands, which requires special consideration for wildfire protection and mitigation.

The responsibility to be aware and alert about the dangers of wildfire belongs to all of us every day – not just a few days in May. By May spring wildfire season is winding down in Virginia, so this is a good time us all to focus on wildfire prevention. There are steps all of us can take to both prevent wildfires from starting in the first place and to minimize the risk to our homes should a wildfire occur. 

Join our commitment to wildfire preparedness by agreeing to take on one project or task each week in May to help prevent a wildfire from starting or to help protect our homes and communities from the threat of wildfires.

Week One
Remember what Smokey Bear taught us: ONLY YOU can prevent wildfires.
Review Smokey’s rules.

Week Two
Debris burns are a common cause of wildfires in Virginia. Take time to learn about safe debris burning.
Safe Debris Burning
Brush Piles for Wildlife

Week Three
Take steps to protect your home and property from wildfire.
VDOF Home Wildfire Safety Checklist
Smokey Bear: How to Prepare Your Home for Wildfire

Week Four
Wildfire prevention goes beyond your backyard. Get your whole community involved in wildfire prevention.
Protect Your Home

Week Five
Share wildfire information with your friends and family! Start by sharing this short video about Wildfire Community Preparedness Day from NFPA.

Field Notes: Partnerships at Pleasant Grove

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Pleasant Grove Park in Fluvanna County offers a nature-rich experience for visitors and a variety of habitats for wildlife. Behind the scenes, it’s also a model for collaboration between county government and a plethora of partners.

VDOF has been a part of several education and stewardship projects at the park, including establishment of a tree identification trail, providing trees for planting, and most recently, maintenance burning of fields to improve habitat.

On an April morning, members of VDOF’s Jefferson work team performed a prescribed burn of some grass fields at the park. The park plans to maintain these fields as early successional wildlife habitat, potentially establishing warm season grasses in the future. Forester Chuck Wright made all the preliminary arrangements for the burn, including meeting with the county Board of Supervisors to get approval to burn in the park. Although it was fire season, VDOF obtained a spring 4PM Burning Law exemption, which can be used for wildlife habitat maintenance and improvement if conditions allow. 

Conducting the burn were senior area forester David Powell, forester Jonah Fielding, and forest technicians Zach Long and Matthew Hutchins. Fluvanna Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Spitzer came out to observe, as did Master Naturalist volunteers Walter Hussey and Doug Rogers. Doug used his camera drone to photograph the burn from the air.

As with any prescribed fire, safety came first. The fields were near Fluvanna High School and a main road, so many factors had to align for a safe and successful burn. Weather forecasts were checked in the days leading up to the burn. Fire lines that had been plowed around the area weeks earlier were refreshed with the bulldozer. The morning of the burn, the county closed most of the park, and VDOT put up a road sign warning motorists of a burn in progress. Burn boss David Powell checked the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction before sending his team out with drip torches to light the first field. He continued to monitor the weather periodically, and an afternoon drop in humidity meant ending early, even though part of one field didn’t get burned.   

In contrast to the early successional fields, some areas of the park are being converted to forest. Walter Hussey is one of Pleasant Grove’s most active volunteers, and he has been involved with tree planting in many areas of the park. On a recent drizzly day, he and seven other members of the Rivanna chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists planted American chestnuts near the community gardens at Pleasant Grove. Jerre Creighton, research forester with VDOF, provided seedlings and nuts – a mix of pure American chestnut and hybrids that are 15/16 American. The hybrid trees are the result of years of backcross breeding with Chinese chestnut. Researchers hope the trees’ Chinese heritage brings along genes for long-term resistance to chestnut blight.

Master Naturalists are just one of the groups who collaborate with the county on stewardship and education at Pleasant Grove. There are also local Master Gardeners and Tree Stewards working to improve the park environment. And, as one volunteer at the planting put it, “Some of us wear more than one hat.”

County school students are also stewards of Pleasant Grove. In fact, the chestnuts joined a field of other wildlife-friendly hardwoods, including white oak, red mulberry, dogwood, black cherry, and American plum, that were planted on Earth Day two years ago by county first and second graders.

Tree shelters protect chestnuts and other young trees

It’s not often you find a local park with over twenty miles of hiking trails, river access, a dog park, pollinator garden, a historic home and museum, and more. Pleasant Grove Park is already a fabulous spot to visit, and thanks to the work of many partners, it just keeps getting better.

Field Notes: Fire Season is Coming – Be Prepared!

By Heather Tuck, VDOF Eastern Region Fire Specialist

Happy February! As we move into this month, my mind, along with many others at Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), turns to preparing for the upcoming spring fire season. It may not look like it outside (there are five inches of glorious snow outside my window right now), but we are quickly approaching fire season in Virginia. As a fire program specialist, my job is to assist with these preparations in any way I can, whether it is making sure our firefighters have the equipment and training they need, helping communities to prepare, or sharing knowledge about fire season and the 4 PM Burning Law.

So why does Virginia have fire season in the spring? Virginia’s fire season takes place in the spring every year. All the leaves that fell last autumn are on the forest floor. The days are beginning to lengthen. Reaching through the leafless branches of the trees, sunlight dries out those fallen leaves, creating a cured fuel bed. These conditions make it easier for fires to catch and spread, making it more difficult for wildland firefighters to control them. Until the new leaves burst forth, we will be on watch for wildfires.

What is the 4 PM Burning law? To help prevent wildfires, in the 1940s, the Commonwealth of Virginia put into place the 4 PM Burning Law. The law states that from the hours of midnight to 4pm, no open air burning is allowed within 300 feet of woods or dry grass, during the period of February 15 to April 30. Humans are the number one cause of wildfires in Virginia, which makes this law a useful tool to help prevent the spread of wildfires.

Why 4 p.m.? Relative humidity reaches its lowest point typically in the midafternoon. At the same time, temperatures have reached their highest point. Generally, after 4 p.m. humidity goes up, temperatures drop, and wind dies down. With these reduced conditions, fires in the evening are generally easier to control, which is why Virginians are allowed to burn after 4 p.m. Of course, occasionally weather conditions are so dry and windy that it is not advisable to burn at all. Always check the weather before burning, so you are not caught in an unsafe situation.

We try to incorporate this information about the 4 PM Burning Law and fire season into training programs and events, so that it becomes common knowledge within Virginia communities. VDOF Five Forks Work Area foresters and technicians did a great job at a recent Junior Emergency Technician (JET) wildland fire training for the junior Powhatan Fire Department members. Not only did they educate teenagers about fire season, but also about the life of a wildland firefighter, wildland fire equipment, and personal protective gear. At the end of the day, these junior fire members gained firsthand experience building a fire line. I think parents were rather impressed to see their kids out in the woods with rakes and shovels, working hard to dig a path that would stop a wildfire. I know that I enjoyed teaching students who were enthusiastic, asked questions, and were willing to get out in the woods and learn.

Fireline raked through wooded area

Another recent event where VDOF was able to spread information about Virginia’s wildfire season was a recent training with York Fire Department. The Blackwater Work Area forester and technician did a great job of teaching recent fire department recruits how to fight wildfires. This included a lecture about the technical aspects of wildfires, as well as a demonstration with a VDOF type 6 engine and fire dozer. At the end of the day, the firefighters constructed hand line, giving them a new appreciation for how fast a dozer can plow fire line. These trainings are great opportunities to share knowledge and experience as well as foster good relationships with the local fire departments.

As VDOF firefighters continue to prepare, please remember this message about fire season. During this time of year, be aware of the risk of burning. Make sure you understand the law and have checked the weather, if you plan to burn. For more information, always feel free to contact your local VDOF forester or look at the VDOF Burning and 4 PM Burning Law FAQ page. Now get outside and enjoy this weather!

Field Notes: Teamwork on the Fan Mountain Fire

On March 9, a wildfire was reported in southern Albemarle County — VDOF and local partner agency Albemarle Fire Rescue responded to the scene. By March 11, suppression efforts had contained 75% of the fire but more than 320 acres had burned. The crews continued suppression operations into the early evening and performed mop-up and spot checks in the following days. As of March 12, the fire was 100% contained.

During operations on March 11, VDOF’s Director of Human Resources Hector Rivera visited the Command Post for the fire and reported back.

“Fred Turck [VDOF fire program staff] escorted me to the Command Post where an incident brief was provided. I could feel the motivation and could immediately asses that logistic operations supporting our professional firefighters has ensured reconstitution operations don’t miss a beat, thus keeping our mission on task,” said Hector.

When responding to wildfires, VDOF firefighters follow an Incident Command Structure in which each person has a distinct role. Response crews can vary in size – for Fan Mountain fire, roughly 30 full- and part-time firefighters worked the fire.

Following the briefing at the Command Post, another VDOF employee escorted Hector to the site of burnout operations. Hector said, “Once on site, I was genuinely amazed about the work our full-time and part-time firefighters were doing in unison, and the expertise displayed by part-time support in this fire – demonstrating we are ‘One VDOF Wildland Firefighting Corps.’

“Upon arriving at the burnout site, I was greeted by one of our part-timers, who gave me an on-the-job-training lecture for managing the drip-torch — I suited up and managed to light up part of the line. Later, in a span of minutes, a hotspot jumped the line, and the team immediately acted to contain the fire.”

Hector took photos of the crew working, including the dozer and engine assets at work. “I diligently stayed out of the way to observe the professionals do their job. It was neat to see our strong women, such as [VDOF employee] Sarah Parmelee, leading from the front.”

Teamwork is important in nearly every work situation, but it is especially critical when it’s a matter of protecting life, property and land. “My time on site reminded me of how important it is for us to never forget the work our teammates do to protect our land and its people. Today, was yet another example of why we are blessed to serve in VDOF and with such an outstanding group of professionals. Great job, and stay alert!” said Hector.

Field Notes: WTREX: Newly Discovered Dinosaur, Latest Workout Craze or Something Better?

by Area Forester Sarah Parmelee

What is TREX? TREX is a prescribed fire training (TR) exchange (EX) held by the Nature Conservancy as part of their North American Fire Initiative. WTREX is a training exchange, for women. These two-week events bring fire practitioners together to share experience and get training. Ideally, those two weeks feature a lot of fire. This will give attendees the opportunity to apply learned techniques and advance their fire qualifications. TREXes have been held in California, Colorado, North Carolina and even Portugal. A few years ago, the suggestion for a TREX for women arose, and that is how WTREX was born. I was fortunate enough to attend the third ever WTREX this spring at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida.

Approximately 40 women, as well as several men, attended WTREX from New Mexico, California, Maine, Virginia, Canada, Costa Rica and Australia. Everyone had different levels of fire experience and different methods for fighting fire. The event was run like a real fire, using the incident command system with regular briefings on our activities for the day.

This training had three main components; classroom workshops, fire and networking:

Our classroom sessions covered topics such as public speaking, how to be an active bystander, speaking to media, and recognizing unconscious bias. We also discussed new technology for mapping and predicting fire behavior, and the ongoing fire effects research at Tall Timbers.

The second part was fire. We burned over 635 acres of grass and brush over seven days. Because we had multiple teams acting independently of each other, we could burn several tracts at the same time, or combine and burn a larger tract together. The regularity with which fire is used at Tall Timbers meant that we had well-established roads and fire breaks. In addition there were many options for where to burn depending on the weather. There is also a good system of support if a fire were to escape so that it could still be a safe learning experience for the WTREX participants.

The third and most meaningful part was the networking. Not a lot of women come to the fire world and even fewer stay. When you are one-of-a-kind in your office or on the fire line, it is easy to think that you do not belong. Being able to see so many firefighting women in one place, at the same time, was something that I did not know I needed. We had women from different career paths and walks of life. United by fire, and in this setting, we were able to have some very meaningful conversations about our place in fire and share our stories.

WTREX1

Some stories were really hard to hear. It is hard to hear about how hard some people have worked to keep others out of this profession because they didn’t fit their definition of a firefighter. Some of these methods for exclusion have been blatant, others more insidious, and all disappointing. The public likes to refer to firefighters as heroes and when we can’t accept someone who is capable of the job but different, we really do not deserve that accolade. Fire doesn’t care who lights it or fights it; we shouldn’t either.

At the same time, for every story of discrimination, bullying, or even abuse, there was a story of someone who reached out their hand to help. These were parents willing to watch children, supportive partners, coworkers standing up for them in small but significant ways. This is a hard job on a good day, and women have not gotten where they are in the fire community without this support.

I took a lot away from WTREX. I have a deeper appreciation for the work environment that I have at the Virginia Department of Forestry. I am very fortunate to have great coworkers and colleagues who see me as an equal. I also have a great role model with former State Forester, Secretary of Forestry and Agriculture Bettina Ring. I am incredibly fortunate to have supervisors who think I am worth sending to WTREX for two weeks in the middle of the spring fire season. We can always be better, but we are trying, and that makes a difference.

I discovered new confidence at WTREX. One of the phrases that we fell back on continually was, “if she can see it, she can be it.” I saw that I could be really good at this job if I work at it and I think owe it to myself to do that. When I hit bumps in my road, I know that I have a network of strong ladies to fall back on for advice or a friendly ear to listen.

I am extremely grateful to VDOF for letting me go to this training. I’m also grateful to the Nature Conservancy for their exceptional training staff and for Tall Timbers Research Station for allowing us to burn…and for not having any pythons.

Field Notes: Virginia Wildland Fire Academy 2018

by Fred Turck Prevention – Program Manager- Emergency Response Branch 

The Virginia Wildland Fire Academy 2018 is now just a memory for more than 320 folks. Students, instructors and staff put in many hours of work in the classroom and field to better prepare themselves and those they were instructing to be safer and more effective emergency responders.

hot muggy morning briefing

Smokey Bear knows all too well that we cannot prevent every wildfire nor can we eliminate natural disasters. When they do occur, it is people like those who attended the academy that are called upon to help those in need. Million dollar aircraft and bulldozers and engines worth thousands of dollars all play an important role in fighting wildland fires; but if it were not for the men and women who dedicate their lives to emergency response, the fires would keep on burning.

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It is the training in the classrooms and in the field that, when combined with the enthusiasm, energy and dedication of the people, produce the “winning combination” of emergency response.

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There are wildfires currently occurring in Colorado, Wyoming and other western states that are stretching local resources and it’s still is very early in the western summer wildfire season. The likelihood is high that of some of those who attended the academy will get an opportunity to apply the skills and safety practices they learned at Fire Academy in a western wildfire assignment this summer.

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The work these folks are asked to do is very strenuous and dangerous; already this year there have been fatalities in the line-of-duty. The most recent occurring June 10 on a wildfire in TX. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the firefighter’s family, co-workers and friends who are dealing with the tragic loss.

Smokey’s rules of fire safety and the saying, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” is most significant when it comes to saving lives. Being prepared for to fight wildland fires is essential; but preventing the fires altogether greatly reduces the opportunities for loss of life and property.

 

VDOF Employee Earns 2018 National Smokey Bear Award

The 2018 National Smokey Bear Awards were recently announced and Fred Turck (wildfire prevention program manager), along with other prevention specialists from the Mid-Atlantic Forest Fire Compact, were awarded the highest honor, the Gold Smokey. This award program is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council.

Since 1957 this prestigious award program has recognized organizations and individuals for outstanding service of at least two years with significant program impact in wildfire prevention at the national level (Gold), multi-stale level (Silver) and statewide level (Bronze). These awards remind us of the hard work done to reduce the threat of unwanted human-caused wildfires.

“Our Virginia Wildfire Prevention Program has been a National Leader for most of Smokey’s 75 years, and I am truly proud to be part of this organization and the overall Smokey program,” stated Fred. “To now be part owner of a Team Gold Smokey makes me even more humble to have been recognized at the Gold level for the second time.” Fred and another VDOF employee, Ed Roger, are only two of three folks who ever received all three awards — Bronze, Silver and Gold. Now Fred is the first individual to have received two Gold Smokey Awards. The Ad Council as an agency received the Gold Award twice but Fred is the first individual to have been so recognized.

Virginia Department of Forestry Warns of Increased Fire Danger

In response to weather forecasts for Thursday, April 12, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) urges people to help prevent wildfires by postponing open-air fires until conditions improve. The combination of strong winds, increased temperatures and low humidity will create extremely dangerous fire weather conditions Thursday.

Fire Weather Watches have already been posted by the National Weather Service (NWS) covering northern and western Virginia for Thursday afternoon. Temperatures are expected to rise to the mid to upper 70s during the afternoon hours. A low pressure system bringing gusty winds of 30 to 40 mph with higher gusts, relative humidity values of 20 to 30 percent and low fuel moistures will combine to create an environment conducive to the rapid spread of wildfires. Any fires that develop could quickly burn out of control.

“Firefighter and citizen safety is our most important consideration and we base all recommendations and actions with that in mind,” says John Miller, VDOF director of fire and emergency response. “The VDOF has elevated its ability to respond as needed and reached out to other cooperators to make sure all wildfire emergency responders are aware of the increased dangers and will plan accordingly.”

Forestry officials urge everyone to delay all outdoor burning scheduled for Thursday, as wildfire dangers remain critical. This recommendation will be reevaluated for Friday and Saturday based on conditions forecasted for that period.

“We urge all citizens to postpone any burning until conditions improve,” stresses Fred Turck, VDOF wildfire prevention program manager. “Virginia’s 4 p.m. law is still in effect, making it illegal to have an open-air fire before 4 p.m. within 300 feet of the woods or dry grass leading to the woods.”

VDOF Responds to Hundreds of Wind-Related Fires

Spring wildfire season, which began February 15, is in full swing and the high winds that raged across Virginia since Thursday only made conditions more dangerous. Governor Northam declared a State of Emergency Friday afternoon as a result of extreme weather conditions which resulted in hundreds of wildfires throughout the Commonwealth.

Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) firefighters have responded to fires in the counties of Albemarle, Amherst, Amelia, Appomattox, Bedford, Botetourt, Buckingham, Campbell, Caroline, Charles City, Charlotte, Chesterfield, Clark, Culpeper, Cumberland, Essex, Fauquier, Floyd, Fluvanna, Frederick, Gloucester, Greene, Greensville, Halifax, Hanover, Henry, James City, King & Queen, King William, Louisa, Lunenburg, Madison, Mecklenburg, Nelson, New Kent, Nottoway, Orange, Rappahannock, Rockingham, Pittsylvania, Powhatan, Pulaski, Shenandoah, Spotsylvania, Stafford,  Warren, Westmorland and Wythe.

Backfire
Wildfire in Henry County. Photo courtesy of Kevin Keith

 

Since Friday, the VDOF has responded to 127 fires covering approximately 690 acres across the state. The largest fire covered more than 302 acres. VDOF firefighters have protected at least 78 homes with an estimated total value of more than $12 million dollars.

“This high-risk season is made even more serious by the extreme weather conditions we’ve seen these past few days,” said John Miller, VDOF director of fire and emergency response. “It’s important for people to be more aware of this elevated fire risk and to take more precautions than they otherwise might.”

Most wildfires in Virginia are the result of debris burning. So it is extremely important for people to abide by the 4 p.m. burning law which went into effect Feb. 15. The law prohibits open burning between the hours of midnight and 4 p.m. each day.  Burning is permitted between the hours of 4 p.m. and midnight, but officials at the VDOF urge people to avoid burning outdoors altogether while these extreme conditions persist

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Tree on powerline
A tree on a power line in Henry Co. Photo courtesy of Kevin Keith

 

“Wildfires are very dangerous,” said Fred Turck, VDOF fire prevention manager. “Under such windy conditions, a wildfire can grow very quickly and be unpredictable.  Even a small wildfire can destroy natural resources, homes and other buildings, and wildfires put Virginians and their firefighters in danger.  If you are careful with anything that could start a wildfire, you are doing your part to prevent a wildfire.”

A Fire Weather Warning, issued by the National Weather Service, remains in effect for most of Central and Eastern Virginia today. If you spot a fire, please call 911.

(Photo at top taken in Powhatan County, courtesy of Taylor Goodman, Powhatan County firefighter)