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: 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!

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

.

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)