MANY WILD GRASS FIRES ARE CONTROLLED BURNS THAT GOT OUT OF HAND
By Cynthia M. Jeffries
Love is not the only thing that is abundant in the spring. Wild grass fires are, too.
From late February through the middle of April, area firefighters will be busy battling blazes from controlled burns – fires residents start themselves to clear off a garden patch, field or to get rid of fallen winter limbs or tree brush from the back yard.
Since the beginning of the grass fire season, many firefighters say they have responded to as many as nine or 10 such fires a week. Normally, a county fire department responds to one or two fires weekly. The majority of the wildfires occur outside incorporated towns and cities, possibly because burning is prohibited inside most city limits.
Though the fires are most often started as a way of getting rid of unwanted debris, poor preparation and a slight breeze can turn a morning of cleanup into an afternoon of panic.
In February, a fire threatened two subdivisions on the Lee-Pontotoc County line when a local man’s effort to clean up his ditch got out of hand. The fire spread over an estimated 100 acres before firefighters and forestry commission workers dug a fire line around the blazes. No one was injured and no homes were damaged.
Two weeks ago, an estimated 2,300 acres burned after a controlled fire in Marshall County got out of hand. Though it was a potentially hazardous situation, no one was injured and no homes were lost.
“Any wind at all can cause a problem,” said Guntown Fire Chief David Wood.
Even though March, the windiest month of the year, just passed, firefighters say they are still not out of the woods as gardeners and farmers continue to get rid of last year’s crop by setting fire to it.
George Butler, district forester for the Northeast District of the Mississippi Forestry Commission, said much of the burning that people do is unnecessary.
“It’s just something that they’ve done for years and years and they think they need to continue,” Butler said.
Controlled burns are used mostly to get rid old crops, grass and briars quickly before planting, Butler said. Also, ashes from burned debris add nutrients to the soil.
One reason controlled burns get out of hand is that many people fail to prepare or plan beforehand. For one thing, many people will decide they are going to burn on the next clear Saturday morning, not because it is an ideal time, but because they have some free time.
“There’s a little common sense that you need to take before you strike that match,” said Chad Wilberger, a forester with the U.S. Forestry Service/Holly Springs National Forest District.
Before burning, Wilberger suggests checking with the weather service to find out about wind conditions. For large areas, a burn permit should be obtained. Fewer than 5 percent of Northeast Mississippians apply for the free permit, Butler said.
“We are not trying to control what you do on your property. The permit is just telling you it’s a good day for burning and it’s a good day for getting rid of the smoke,” Butler said.
If the fire spreads, the fire starter could be liable, Butler said. Also, some fire departments levy a service charge for making calls to wildfires when a person burns the same day he was refused a permit.
Pratt-Friendship Volunteer Fire Chief Joe Blassingame said wind is a very important factor to consider when planning a burn because as heat from the fire rises, so does the air that’s forcing it up, which creates a breeze. If that breeze mixes with a slight wind of even 5 to 10 mph, it could cause trouble, sending a flame or spark to an unprotected area.
Ceder Hill Volunteer Fire Chief Tim Roberts advises that even when burning a small back yard, one needs to make sure a fire line has been dug or cleared around the scheduled burn site.
And though it has rained the last couple of days, it’s only a hiatus.
“To be as wet as it is, we’ve still responded to quite a few fires,” Blassingame said. “It’s going to be this way until it greens up.”