Open-air burning banned as fires rage Blazes in Maryland are worst in 10 years

November 25, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

As wildfires blazed in every corner of Maryland, state officials imposed new restrictions on open burning and pleaded with residents to be careful with fire.

Beginning at midnight tonight, fires in wooded areas or within 200 feet of them will be banned, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's office announced yesterday.

All permits for open-air burning of yard waste and farm fields have been canceled, and campfires on state land are forbidden. The only outdoor fires allowed are small campfires on private land, campfires at Assateague State Park and fires within the few towns that are granting local permits, state officials said.

Blazes broke out in at least nine locations yesterday.

"This is one of the most severe fall fire seasons we've seen in the past 10 years," said Alan Zentz, state fire supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. "We've seen an increase in the size and intensity of fires this fall, but fortunately we haven't had any serious injuries."

When hunters take to the woods Saturday with the start of the firearms hunting season for deer, state firefighters are worried that they could accidentally spark more blazes.

"We must use every precaution to prevent forest fires," Glendening said, announcing the first statewide ban on open burning since 1995, and the third such ban in the past decade. "Extremely dry conditions across most of the state for the past few months, coupled with no significant improvement in long-range forecasts, have created a very high danger of wildfire."

November is always the worst month for wildfires in the mid-Atlantic states, but a drought that began in June has made this month far more volatile than usual.

Yesterday, DNR officials tallied 111 wildfires so far in November -- more than triple the count for the same time last year. And the fires were far more harmful, burning 293 acres, more than six times the area damaged in November 1997. More than 40 of those fires began when someone set fire to yard waste, leaves or farm fields, only to lose control of the burn, a DNR spokesman said.

The tally was out of date soon after it was finished as fresh fire reports poured into the state fire supervisor's office yesterday. "Every 5 minutes or 10 minutes there's a different fire," said DNR spokeswoman Susan O'Brien.

By evening, 10 fires were reported burning in Anne Arundel, Caroline, Carroll, Charles, Dorchester, St. Mary's and Washington counties. The most troublesome, a 45-acre forest fire west of Hancock in Washington County, jumped a fire line in heavy winds early yesterday morning. By evening it was "contained but still a handful," and firefighters from the National Park Service were called in to help.

Anne Arundel County firefighters issued at least eight alarms as they fought a stubborn 20-acre blaze at Harwood in the southern part of the county. State firefighters managed to control a 30- to 40-acre fire at Tayloes Neck in Charles County. They prevented a smaller fire near Sharpsburg from damaging six houses, although three farm outbuildings burned to the ground there Monday night and yesterday morning.

"To have a 20- or 25-acre fire burning in one area is typical," Zentz said. "To have three and four [fierce fires] burning in different regions at the same time, we have a problem.

"At the moment, we're handling it," Zentz said, with plenty of firefighting equipment in reserve. But to bring the fire danger to an end, "We need several days of a good, soaking rain, and there's none of that in the forecast."

Fire precautions

Because of a rash of wildfires, state officials banned most outdoor burning and asked residents to take precautions:

Do not burn anything in or near woods or in brushy areas. The only exceptions are small campfires on private land and burning within town limits -- but check with local fire departments. Some have their own restrictions.

Don't smoke in areas with lots of dry grass, leaves or brush. Make sure cigarettes, matches and other burning items are completely out before throwing them away.

Take extra care with power tools; their sparks can cause fires.

Park on pavement or bare ground. Heat from automobiles can ignite dry grass and leaves.

When building a campfire on private land, state officials strongly advise choosing an open spot at least 200 feet from the nearest woods. Clear away leaves and twigs. Keep campfires under constant watch and thoroughly extinguish them before leaving the area.

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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