`Near-drought' conditions spark brush-fire epidemic

March 25, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

A flick of a cigarette was all it took for a parched hillside in northern Harford County to erupt in flames this week - one of hundreds of brush fires in the state in recent weeks that officials blame on conditions that could make this the driest March since record-keeping began in 1871.

Besides the blaze in Harford, significant fires have broken out in Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Frederick counties. There even was one in Baltimore City this week.

The fires have ranged from tiny roadside nuisances that required a short dousing with water to a 100-acre inferno in an environmental area that took three days and more than 100 firefighters to extinguish.

State foresters have responded to 292 wildfires that have scorched 640 acres this month. That's more than double the normal number for this time of year and the most since the mid-1980s, said Monte Mitchell, fire supervisor with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service.

Hundreds more fires have been fought by local fire officials and don't show up in the state statistics. Anne Arundel County, for example, has logged 342 fires, including 32 on a single day.

A statewide ban on outdoor burning is being considered, a prevention measure that hasn't been employed since 2002.

Officials blame warm weather, blustery winds and stingy precipitation that as of yesterday totaled just 0.18 inch for the month, a fraction of the 3.93 inches usually recorded in March. Depending on what happens over the next week, the state could topple the record low of 0.46 inch set in 1910.

In response, Maryland forestry officials are asking residents to refrain from burning things outdoors. Every county fire department in the region is asking motorists not to throw cigarettes out the window.

Human carelessness causes almost all brush fires, Mitchell said. The leading cause is burning debris, followed by arson and children playing with fire.

"People have to be conscious about using anything that involves a spark in these kinds of weather conditions," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Fire Department. "Cigarettes are a major culprit."

Although most brush fires don't reach buildings, two mulch fires - one in Baltimore County, the other in Charles County - have destroyed property.

"With this weather, people should clear any brush away from their homes," said state Fire Marshal William E. Barnard.

The conditions are so dry that the hot underbelly of a lawn mower sparked a small fire yesterday in Anne Arundel County.

A homeless person burning a candle in the Severn Run Natural Environment Area last week started the county's largest brush fire this year, Davies said yesterday. The 100-acre blaze took three days to stop and required about 140 firefighters.

"It has been extremely, extremely dry, and it has been this way for a few months," said Brandon Peloquin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. He said the Baltimore area is in "near-drought" conditions.

"There is a chance of showers this weekend, but at the most, it'll bring a few hundredths of an inch of rain," he said.

Brush fires present unique challenges. At a 17-acre blaze in Prince George's County, for example, firefighters hooked up hoses to a hydrant across a busy street - closing it to traffic for seven hours, said Mark E. Brady, a county fire department spokesman.

Firefighters also have to use four-wheel-drive Jeeps or pickup trucks in the woods because fire engines are too wide.

Smoldering embers can remain hidden or get swept off to nearby areas. Baltimore County firefighters thought they had extinguished a 4-acre fire near Loch Raven Reservoir last week, only to have it pop up two more times.

On Thursday, a brush fire burned up to 5 acres on a steep ravine in Baltimore near the Greenspring Middle School parking lot. Firefighters linked as many as a dozen 50-foot hoses together to reach the blaze.

Chief Kevin Cartwright of the Baltimore City Fire Department said he believed the brush fire was the largest one in his 17-plus years with the department.

"The challenge was getting to the scene of the fire," Cartwright said. "We normally hook a hose to a fire hydrant and walk into someone's home. In this case, we hooked hoses to a fire hydrant and walked across a parking lot and then a field, into the woods and then down a ravine."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Frank Roylance and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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