Rash of brush fires alarms DNR officials

March 26, 1995|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

A rash of brush, field and woods fires since March 9 -- with little measurable rainfall in Harford County -- has Department of Natural Resources forestry officials concerned.

"Most of the fires were preventable, caused by people burning debris and letting the fires get out of hand," said Michael J. Huneke, a watershed forester.

Foresters from the DNR's Central Region office in Bel Air, which includes Montgomery, Carroll, Howard, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, responded to 42 "natural cover" fires since Jan. 1. Twenty-three of those responses were in Harford County.

"We only had 14 such responses in the Central Region for the same period last year and 127 for the whole year," said Bob

Graham, a DNR spokesman.

Mr. Graham's statistics did not include all field and woods fires, Mr. Huneke said. "Because of cutbacks affecting state forest rangers, there are only three foresters -- Frank Lopez, Wayne Merkel and myself -- on call in the Central Region," he said.

The foresters monitor all fire calls and respond to the bigger ones, or to those where fire personnel need special equipment.

"We also go when fire authorities want us to investigate the cause of the fires," he said.

Statistics from the Emergency Operations Center of Harford County showed volunteer fire companies had answered 61 calls this year for brush, field and woods fires, compared with 32 during the same period last year.

Mr. Huneke said March 17 was perhaps his busiest day for natural cover fires. He said 40 acres were destroyed just north of the state border in York County, Pa. "Firefighters from across northern Harford County were helping York firefighters, so Harford's defense against other fires was really stretched," he said.

The same day, two acres in Baltimore County burned near Interstate 70 and the Beltway about 5 p.m.

"Baltimore County has had a slight increase in brush fires," said Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard, spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department. But he said exact data were not available.

Spokesmen for Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties said they had noticed no significant increases since March 1 in what is traditionally called the "brush fire season."

In Harford County, open burning between 4 p.m. and midnight is allowed with a permit from DNR officials, provided a 10-foot area in all directions from the burning site is clear of flammable materials. Adequate equipment and personnel are required to be standing by to prevent the fire from spreading, and at least one person must remain until the last spark is out, Mr. Huneke said.

"Generally, when we investigate a fire that got away, one of those regulations was not followed," he said.

Fire officials suspect arson in a March 18 incident in which an abandoned cabin and several acres of woodland were destroyed at Broad Creek Scout Camp in the 1900 block of Susquehanna Hall Road in Whiteford just before 7 p.m.

Three men were seen in the area 20 minutes before the fire was discovered, said W. Feron Taylor, deputy fire marshal.

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