Drought forces ban on outdoor burning

Prohibition includes charcoal grills

Garrett exempted


Put away that charcoal grill.

With no significant rainfall in the forecast for Maryland, the state Department of Natural Resources announced yesterday a ban on open-air burning in most of the state.

In addition to charcoal grills, the ban restricts campfires and leaf and trash burning. Propane and electric grills are allowed. Garrett County is excluded from the statewide ban, DNR officials said, because rainfall in the county is not below normal.

Last month was the driest March since recordkeeping for Baltimore began in 1871. Dry conditions accompanied by high winds and low relative humidity across the state led to more than 360 wildfires responded to by the Maryland Forest Service during the month. Local firefighters across the state fought hundreds of fires that are not recorded in the state statistics.

"We responded to three times the number of fires in any other March," said Steve Koehn, director of the department's Forest Service. "They are harder to control and they are getting larger."

The fine for violating the ban is $125.

"We are not going to run around the state writing tickets left and right," Koehn said. "We are intending to educate."

On Thursday, the DNR imposed a ban on open-air burning in state-owned parks, forests and wildlife management areas in all counties except Garrett.

Charles E. Gates Jr., a department spokesman, said officials adopted the statewide ban yesterday because local forecasts give no indication of rain and because conditions could worsen.

Such an extensive ban has been issued three times in Maryland. The last one, in 1999, lasted from Aug. 4 to Sept. 7.

Officials said they don't expect this ban to last as long. In addition to Maryland, Delaware and parts of Virginia have bans on open-air fires.

Koehn said the department will evaluate the need for Maryland's ban daily. He said the ideal conditions to lift it "would be 1 inch of rain over a 24-hour period."

The thunderstorms predicted this weekend would not help, Koehn said, because small amounts of rain would be quickly absorbed and lightning could spark more fires.

Disappointed by the news of the ban was Eliza Eisendrath, a Wyman Park resident who spends many weekends tending the fires of a wood-burning grill. "I'm devastated. I'm going to have to get my meat fix somewhere else," she said.

Though propane grill use is permitted, Eisendrath would hear nothing of it. Her family cooks with a high-end grill called the Grillery, which burns wood they buy and stack under the deck.

"Once you eat off a wood grill you'd never eat anything else," she said.

Officials said the restriction is not meant to inconvenience people but to ensure their safety.

"We do not make these determinations lightly, and understand this may require some people to adjust their plans," said Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks in a written statement. "However, a ban of this magnitude is necessary to protect the lives and property of Maryland citizens, as well as our natural resources."

With the Orioles' opening day Monday, questions remained about whether the restriction would affect tailgaters and Boog Powell's barbecue stand at Camden Yards - in a part of town surrounded by more concrete than vegetation. Gates said his department would leave that up to Baltimore fire officials.

"Nobody from our department is going to be patrolling inside Camden Yards," he said. "Our concern is forest fires and wooded areas."

At Watson's Garden Center, where the Christmas decorations section is overtaken each spring by an array of grills and grilling accessories, no one had heard of the ban by early evening yesterday.

"Wow. That's really something," said Bob Salmond, a store manager. "They didn't even do that a few years ago when we had the drought and all those water restrictions."

Bob Pullin, the garden shop manager at Stebbins Anderson in Towson, also had not yet heard of the ban by yesterday evening. But the Timonium resident said he was surprised that the state had not instituted such restrictions sooner.

"Every time I go home, there's a wildfire here and a wildfire there," he said. "Everything is so, so dry."

Allan Whittaker, 59, a retired Baltimore police officer who lives in Weems, Va., was browsing in Stebbins' grilling section yesterday evening. He said officials in Virginia have already enacted a burning ban because of the dry weather - a move he supports.

About five or six years ago, Whittaker said, he dumped the ashes from his charcoal grill to disastrous effect.

"I thought the embers were out," he said. "But when the fire department showed up, I realized they weren't. The whole marsh caught fire. That's the thing with ashes. You can't tell if they have flames in them or not."

He has since switched to a gas grill.


Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

Ban in brief

In March, the Maryland Forest Service responded to more than 360 wildfires, nearly triple the 20-year average for that month.

Maryland's statutory ban restricts a fire where any material is burned in the open or in a receptacle other than a furnace, incinerator or attachment to a stack or chimney. The ban includes leaf-burning, campfires and charcoal grilling.

People are being asked to use caution when they discard cigarettes.

Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

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