Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fall Fire Season in the Southern Appalachians

With the leaves beginning to turn brown and fall to the ground the Southern Appalachians are now entering the fall fire season.
The photos above were taken in March of 2006 during the Quarry Fire that occurred along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. By the time the fire was contained it had grown to almost 2000 acres. Part of the challenge was the close proximity of many homes that had been built in the Urban Interface. This term refers to the trend toward building homes in the woodland environment making them prey to wildland fires. This fire was managed by an inter-agency Unified Command Team who directly contributed to the prevention of the loss of any homes. The fire was started by a homeowner dumping ashes from his wood stove along the edge of the woods behind his house. Costs for the fire suppression effort for just the National Park Service was $28,000. The US Forest Service costs were more than $200,000. The Commonwealth of Virginia and counties of Bedford and Roanoke also had many thousands of dollars in expenses.
I use this fire as and example of the newer phenomena of wildland fires in the east. When I began my fire fighting career in the mid 1970s we were taught that fires only occurred in the west and in the east fires were small and only crept through the leaves and dry grasses. Lightning strikes only resulted in fires west of the Mississippi.
As my career progressed I noted a drastic change in those conditions. More frequently we were seeing fires resulting after lightning storms (sometimes days or weeks after a stump struck by lightning would smolder) and fires developed higher flame lengths and the potential to crown (flames running up into the tops of trees).
This increase in fire potential in the east can be attributed to several sources. Years of drought in the mid Atlantic states, the mortality of trees due to pests such as gypsy moths and hemlock woolly adelgids, and damage to already stressed trees by ice storms and heavy winds. All these events have contributed to the amount of fuel on the ground in the form of dried dead limbs and entire trees. Take these points into consideration and you can start to see some of the reasons for the increase in fire intensity.
Add to these conditions the construction of more and more woodland homes and the stress of saving peoples houses is added to the mix. This factor forces firefighter to take more risks in saving personal property and lives.
So as you spend time with your family in the woods, go hunting, camping, or are just working around you home, keep wildland fire safety in your mind during this time of year.

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