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Extremely dry weather, gusty winds spell danger

Firefighters throughout the county were racing to keep area brush fires in check Thursday afternoon and warning people not to burn as conditions remain “extremely critical.”

While 8-feet flames threatened three houses in a brush fire on Deer Ridge Trail in the Oak Level community, county firefighters linked forces with neighboring departments from Pittsylvania County in an effort to save property, limb and land from the rapidly spreading blaze.

Residents evacuated threatened houses in the immediate path of the fire that licked at nearby woods.

They stood by helplessly watching the encroaching flames.

However, after about two hours firefighters won this battle, and quickly moved on to the next.

Thursday’s dry weather conditions “grew a lot worse” than prior days, Primary Forestry Technician G. T.  Hendrick said as forestry personnel found themselves quickly traveling from one brush fire to the next.

Also on Thursday county firefighters responded to brush fires on Highview Road in the Oak Level community and near Adams Lumber Company on Perth Road in Nathalie.

A fire on Alton Post Office Road Monday afternoon burned a large field before firemen from Cluster Springs and Turbeville volunteer fire departments brought it under control with help from the forestry department.

That fire burned a one-and-a-half acre grass field belonging to Lee Pulliam,
according to Hendrick.

On Sunday night a pile of brush was burned where the land had been cleared, and that pile of burned brush caught back up on Monday, he explained.

What started as a legal fire on Sunday evening “got away” on Monday, and firefighters were able to stop it before it got into a wooded area, Hendrick said.

Foresters have been busy all week battling brush fires as dry conditions continue.

On Sunday, two brush fires were reported in the Cluster Springs and Liberty communities, on Tuesday brush fires were reported in the Scottsburg community of Dryburg and on Bradley Creek Road in Nathalie, and on Wednesday a brush fire was reported on Sinai Road.

In each of these brush fires only grass and leaves were burned.

Halifax County is experiencing an increased fire danger and near critical fire weather conditions as low humidity and strong, gusty west to northwest winds blew through the area Thursday.

A surge of arctic air is expected to move into the region Friday, according to the National Weather Service. The airmass across the region will remain very dry with relative humidity minimums at or below 20 percent. 

The combination of the wind and low relative humidity values will result in an increase in fire danger and near critical fire weather conditions. These conditions will be most pronounced east of the Blue Ridge across the Piedmont of Virginia and North Carolina, the weather service said.

It has been several days since significant precipitation occurred across the region allowing grass and leaves to become receptive to fire. These windy conditions and low relative humidity will combine with the dry fuels, such as dead grasses and leaves, to create conditions that may result in an increase in fire activity, officials warned.

Outdoor burning is discouraged. 

The forestry department urged residents not to dump hot ashes from a wood stove near dead grass or leaves and to make sure all ash piles are cold to touch.

“Wet them down if needed,” forestery officials said. 

Officials with the Virginia Department of Forestry are on the lookout for smoke from other sources too. Household fires produce leftover ash, and when improperly disposed of, this ash can cause a wildland fire.

“During the winter months, with cold weather all day long, wood stoves may be burning continuously. Ashes are dumped more frequently, and that increases the fire risk,” said Derek Keiser, VDOF technician in Amherst, Campbell and Nelson counties. “Wood ashes retain their heat for several days, enough to ignite the dry grass or other combustible materials nearby.” 

High winds can uncover the still-hot embers and start a wildland fire. Investigations have traced the source of fires back to ash piles, some a week old.

To reduce the risk of this potentially serious threat, follow these steps to cool down wood ash completely and prevent hot wood ash from igniting forest, field and structural fires:

DO keep ashes in a metal container that can be tightly closed with a metal lid.

 DO teach other family members about the dangers associated with hot ash disposal.

 DO NOT dispose of ashes in paper, plastic or cardboard containers.

 DO NOT dump loads of wood ashes into one pile. The pile can retain heat and insulate embers for long periods of time.

 DO NOT assume the ashes are cold and pour them onto the ground or into a hole. Leaves can blow onto them or the wind can stir up sparks.

 DO NOT place ashes in a dumpster. Hot ashes could ignite a fire with material already in the dumpster.

 DO NOT store your metal ash container on your home’s deck, in your garage or in any location that may allow heat to transfer from those hot ashes to nearby flammable items. 

Wood ash, once completely cooled, can safely be dumped. To properly dispose of hot ashes, pour the ashes into the metal container. Soak the ashes with water. Place the metal lid securely on the container. Put the closed container outside the home away from combustible materials. Store ashes in the container for several days.

Once a person is positive the ashes in the container are “cold,” spread them in a garden or a gravel driveway and then prepare the container for the next load.

If any burning is conducted, officials warn county residents to make sure the appropriate materials and manpower are on hand to quickly suppress any fire that flares up.

The commonwealth’s 4 p.m. Burning Law went into effect Feb. 15 and prohibits burning before 4 p.m. each day until April 30 if the fire is in, or within 300 feet of woodland, brushland or fields containing dry grass or other flammable materials.

“This law is one of the most effective tools we have to prevent wildfires,” said John Miller, director of resource protection at the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF). “Each late winter and early spring, downed trees, branches and leaves become ‘forest fuels’ that increase the danger of a forest fire. By adhering to the law and burning between 4 p.m. and midnight only, people are less likely to start a fire that threatens them, their property and the forests of Virginia.”

In addition to open burning, debris burning in metal barrels has been the source of wildland fires this year.

 “If flames and sparks are flying out of the barrel, that increases the chance they’ll land in dry grass or leaves and start a wild fire,” said Paul Reier, VDOF technician in James City, Charles City and New Kent counties. “Be sure the barrel is secure and won’t tip over, causing the fire to spill out. Stay with the debris barrel while the fire is burning, and be sure to properly and safely dispose of the ashes.” Reier adds that metal barrels should be in good condition – not weak with rust or full of holes. A mesh wire screen, with openings ofone-quarter inch” or less, should cover the top of the barrel. 

A violation of this law is a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine. In addition to the criminal violation, those who allow a fire to escape are liable for the cost of suppressing the fire as well as any damage caused to others’ property.