We have been experiencing extreme dry conditions in the Western part of Virginia for a month. Fire officials are stating that this is the driest the woods have been since the mid 1950s. That is an incredible statement since during my career as a National Park Ranger I have experienced what were considered conditions thought to be the driest it could get. During the early 1990’s one fall saw so many fire starts in and around the Blue Ridge Parkway and George Washington National Forest that it was declared a “Wildfire Complex” with a Type I Incident Command Team placed in charge and firefighters brought in from all over the country. When bulldozers were used to improve existing forest service roads to serve as fire lines they could not dig deep enough into the soil to find any moisture.
These were conditions that were most often used to describe the more recognized vast western fires to come in Yellowstone in 1988. In the early 1970s when I started my first fire training the instructors and written literature stressed that large conflagrations where crowning or the ignition of standing trees’ foliage and lightning started fires only occurred in the western states. Eastern fires were described as slow moving flames that crept slowly through leaf litter carpet. This state of affairs would greatly change over the next twenty years.
Years of Eastern drought, increases in dried fuels covering the forest floor the result of damage from winter storms and pests, and the explosion of building homes in the woodland environment (what land management agencies call the Urban Interface) have all contributed to a changing environment for fire to start and spread. According to the US Forest Service between 1990 and 1998 21% of Wildland firefighter fatalities occurred in the Southeastern Region of the United States. This statistical tragedy serves as an indication of the increase in the severity of fire in the East.
In 1991 our fall fire season started with a report of a smoke and flames on the southeast side of Piney Mountain. The fire was started by a lighting strike on the mountain several days earlier. Shortly after nightfall the fire was crowning across the top of the mountain and heading at an alarming rate toward the Blue Ridge Parkway just north of the Otter Creek Campground.
Within a week there were three other major fires burning within a three county area and all adjacent to or near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fire fighting efforts were complicated by the fact that it was early in the season and leaves were still falling from trees and covering firelines within hours.
Even though I had experience fighting large wildland fires in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, and California, the closest I came to losing my life to fire was during the fall of 1992 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I will share more on that story later.
In the mean time, if you are enjoying the outdoors or live near the woods be extremely careful with any use of fire during this time of concern for fire starts.