Fire danger elevated

Wildfire season is off to an early start this year in Columbus County and throughout the N.C. Forest Service district headquartered in Whiteville.

“It’s been a little busier than we expected to start the year, but we were ready,” said Shane Hardee, District Forester.

The dry air, high winds and warmer temperatures that have characterized the mild winter have increased the fire danger, although no burning bans have been put into place.

“Right now, we’re just asking people to use common sense,” Hardee said.

Much of the storm debris from last fall’s tropical systems is approaching peak dryness for burning, according to the National Weather Service. Although the spring fire season doesn’t really get underway until March, both the Forest Service and volunteer departments have responded to fires throughout the district in recent weeks, Hardee said.

NC Forest Service personnel are expecting a busy week this week, with largely dry and windy conditions in the area.

“We just ask people not to burn when conditions are like they are right now,” he said. “We had rain on at least two nights last week, but it wasn’t enough to reduce the fire danger.”

Prevailing La Nina weather patterns could bring drier conditions to the area this spring and summer, according to the National Weather Service. The same effects made for an active tropical season last year, providing more fuel in the form of storm-damaged trees and debris in heavily forested areas.

The NCFS recommends having basic firefighting tools close at hand, along with a water hose and buckets, is burning is required. Never leave a fire unattended until it is “cold out,” or embers are no longer hot to the touch. Having a phone immediately available is also important.

Rapid changes in weather can also encourage wildfires, Hardee said. Warm or cold fronts are usually ushered in by high winds, which can cause a fire to change direction in seconds.

Burning should be saved for days when winds are calm, the ground damp, and humidity average to high, Hardee said. Burning safety conditions can be obtained by calling the local office of the Forest Service, or going online to http://climate.ncsu.edu/fwip/index.php, which features up to the minute fire dangers and weather reports searchable by area.

Hardee said the local headquarters has spent the winter tuning up and repairing equipment used during Hurricane Matthew and the massive wildfires in western North Carolina last fall. The district is now completely staffed, except for one open position in Pender County.

“We’ve been doing some training, maintenance, repairs, and getting things in order for this season,” Hardee said. “We’re in good shape for a regular fire season.”

The average wildfire can be prevented through common sense and paying attention, Hardee said.

“The best thing people can do is pay attention to the wind and the weather, and be ready,” he said. “It’s a lot less expensive to prevent a fire than to fight one.”