A winter of below-average levels of rain and snow has created tinder-dry brush conditions, prompting worried forest officials Friday to issue a statewide ban on outdoor burning, including charcoal grills.
Over the past six months, rainfall has been below average every month. With the exception of January, rain totals in the Baltimore area were at least an inch below normal. Along with the drought conditions has come a dramatic increase in the number of serious brush fires.
"Right now, they're extremely dry because of a lack of rainfall and an inadequate snowfall during the latter part of the winter months. And because of that, there's a lot of dry underbrush, leaves from last fall that make it ripe for fire conditions," said Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas. "When you add wind to that and a heat source, you can end up with some serious fires."
"We haven't seen it this bad since 1988," the last time such a statewide ban was issued, said Alan Zentz, the state fire supervisor for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest Service.
By late last week, forest service personnel had responded to 462 fires that burned 4,500 acres of forest, marsh and grassland, about half caused by people burning debris. At this time last year, there had been only about 168 fires that scorched 291 acres. Those numbers do not include fires extinguished by municipal and county fire departments.
The open-air burning ban prohibits any fire in which material is burned in the open or in a receptacle other than a furnace, incinerator or other equipment connected to a stack or chimney.
Although charcoal grills are included under the ban, barbecues that use gas or propane may be used. "Charcoal as a solid fuel represents an open-air fire," Mr. Zentz said.
A few fires occurred yesterday, he said, but they were small and did not burn long.
Dick Diener, a forecaster for the National Weather Service at BWI, said the problem was not just that less rain fell, but that much of the rain the area has received over the last few months came in the form of downpours that simply ended as runoff instead of soaking into the ground.
"So a lot of that water was wasted," Mr. Diener said.
Although there could be some rain coming into the area on Wednesday or Thursday, the long-range precipitation prospects are dim.
"As far as the next 10 days go, we're looking for temperatures to be above normal and precipitation to be below normal," Mr. Diener said. And the forecast for the region for the next three months, he said, is no more optimistic: The weather will be warm and dry.
Precipitation measured at the weather service's Baltimore-Washington International Airport offices has been below normal since October.
Month ....... Precip.* ..... Avg.*
Sept. ......... 3.93 ....... +0.52
Oct. .......... 1.82 ....... -1.16
Nov. .......... 1.95 ....... -1.37
Dec. .......... 1.98 ....... -1.43
Jan. .......... 2.87 ....... -0.18
Feb. .......... 1.88 ....... -1.24
March ......... 2.12 ....... -1.26
April ......... 0.01 .......... NA
SOURCE: National Weather Service