Wildfire awareness critical in storm-damaged local areas

Wildfire awareness critical in storm-damaged local areas

March 7th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

Recent woodland fires in Catoosa, Walker and surrounding counties show last year's tornado may contribute to a series of smaller-scale disasters for years to come.

State and federal officials estimate that nearly 9,000 acres of forested areas were damaged in last year's tornadoes in Dade, Walker, and Catoosa counties alone, resulting in significant dead and downed trees that increase the potential for dangerous wildfires.

Last week, high winds fanned what was intended to be the controlled burn of a pile of debris and downed trees, which quickly spread across more than 20 acres. The fire that began shortly before 2 p.m. Tuesday smoldered throughout the night and charred timber was still smoking the following day.

Last month, a similar situation occurred on Lookout Mountain, where what foresters said should have been a two-acre wildfire, extinguishable in a few days at most, spread to more than 50 acres and might be burning still if rain had not aided firefighters from five counties who battled that blaze.

In both cases, a combination of tornado-related fuel and human thoughtlessness created what may become a common occurrence throughout the region.

It was ironic that the Catoosa County fire, fueled by timber downed by the April 27, 2011, tornado as it swept across Cherokee Valley, occurred within sight of a church where a public meeting to discuss the wildfire danger was scheduled that very evening.

The meeting was part of a nine-day effort by members of the Georgia Forestry Commission and U.S. Forest Service to educate the public about the potential for wildfire in tornado-damaged areas.

"We're here promoting prevention," said Michael Williams, of the Forest Service. "To help people learn how to protect their homes and make them less susceptible to wildfires."

Williams said that even with recent rains, the debris on the ground remains dry and highly flammable. Not only that, but there is so much more fuel - dead and dying trees and undergrowth - than normal that the usual dangers of forest fires are intensified.

"Fire is always a concern in this area, but downed timber is not normal," he said. "The main thing is to clear debris and create a defensible space around your home."

Property owners should be aware of the heightened risks for fire this year. Drought conditions remain - decaying debris is like timber - and quickly dries when exposed to high, dry winds. And the amount of downed trees makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to use bulldozers and heavy equipment to combat conflagrations.

It is this "perfect storm" of elements that makes the danger so high, according to Mark Wiles, a senior forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission, even when open burning is allowed.

Wiles said burn bans and the need to have burn permits varies from county to county and is dictated by environmental concerns. Both Catoosa and Walker ban burning from May 1 until Oct. 1, and require permits during the other seven months of the year.

Even with a permit, weather conditions determine whether or not open burning is allowed, officials said.

Permits cost nothing, but to burn without one can prove costly. Firefighters bill the landowner where a fire originates for any non-permitted burn that gets out of hand; those with legal burns are not charged.

But even there, there are exceptions. The landowner where last week's fire on Cherokee Valley occurred had a permit, but the burn violated the conditions of that permit. Burns of material stacked by hand would have been allowed, but since machines were used to push tree trunks into a big pile, the Cherokee Valley burn violated conditions of the permit.

That wind-fanned fire crossed two bulldozed fire breaks as it burned more and more of the detritus left by last spring's tornado.

Wiles said foresters will come out and assist, for a fee, landowners who want to conduct a burn, but strict adherence to permit restrictions and following the advice of foresters should suffice for most small burns.

"Here's a word of warning," he said. "There are a lot of heavy forest fuels so thick and so dense that it is nearly impossible to contain and suppress some of these wildfires."