Wednesday April 11, 2012

Although brush fire danger receded slightly on Tuesday thanks to less-fierce winds, the region is not out of the woods yet, according to weather forecasters and public safety officials.

Abnormally dry conditions combined with low humidity have caused tinder-dry conditions in the Berkshires, prompting local fire departments to withhold burning permits in many communities.

"Things are very combustible," said Hugh Johnson, National Weather Service meteorologist and Fire Weather Focal Point in the Albany, N.Y., office.

"We've had a lot more ‘red flag' fire warnings this spring than in the last several years combined," he told The Eagle.

The government forecasters put out a "red flag" alert when humidity is below 30 percent -- very dry -- and wind gusts exceeding 25 miles an hour are predicted for at least two consecutive hours.

No warnings were issued Tuesday, Johnson said, although conditions were "borderline" in Pittsfield.

"Thursday looks like the most critical day for fire potential," he added. "We'll have to keep a real close eye on it."

Apart from a slight chance of drizzle on Wednesday, the next potential rainfall, though not heavy, is on Saturday night and Sunday.

Although the region is not yet in an official drought, Johnson said, there's a potential in the weeks ahead.

"If we green up without any rain, that will suck up whatever available moisture remains in the ground, and then we'll be in trouble," he said.

The open-burning season, which began Jan. 15, is scheduled to end on May 1, according to the state fire marshal's office.

Capt. Raymond Tart of the Pittsfield Fire Department explained that each community's fire chief makes the call on whether to allow controlled burns on any given day. Ten Berkshire communites allow permits to be issued online via www.bcburnpermits.com.

On Tuesday, Pittsfield and Peru were not issuing permits, but Becket, Great Barrington, Lanesborough, Lee, Lenox, Richmond and Stockbridge allowed controlled burns.

The Pittsfield Fire Depart ment made the call based on National Weather Service forecasts of breezy conditions.

"We're monitoring conditions day to day," said Tart, based on wind and humidity forecasts. The lack of a snowpack and only spotty rain showers have required extreme caution, he added.

The most-vulnerable areas, especially hillsides, are filled with heavy, thick, dry brush.

But, Tart added, the greatest fire danger results from youngsters who light grass fires -- "that's a fairly high percentage" of uncontrolled brushfires, he said.

Whenever the city resumes issuing burn permits, the fire department's advice to homeowners is to follow guidelines by keeping fires at least 75 feet from any structure, making sure they are small and well-controlled, keeping a garden hose handy and making sure that the fire is completely out.

With 30 years on the force, Lenox Fire Chief Daniel Clifford acknowledged that the woods are "very dry" and the combination of high winds and low humidity are a recipe for trouble.

But he said the town has been fortunate, with only one brushfire to deal with this month, an unexplained, small blaze on West Dugway Road on Sunday afternoon.

In addition to "red flag" weather warnings, he considers air-quality conditions predicted by the Department of Environmental Protection be fore issuing burn permits.

DEP regulations limit open burning to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Clifford pointed out that fire officials in the area are breathing easier following the arrest of an accused "serial arsonist" in Great Barrington last Thursday.

Following his arraignment in Central Berkshire District Court on Friday, Stuart P. Zebrowski of Chicopee was being held without bail, charged with setting 15 brushfires and four structure fires since last June. Locations included Great Barrington, Sandisfield and New Marl borough.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto




If you burn ...

When local fire chiefs issue permits, the list of materials that can be burned includes:

  • Brush, cane, driftwood, and forestry debris.
  • Agricultural debris and materials.
  • Trees and brush from private land clearing.
  • Fungus-infected elm wood.

Burning of these materials is prohibited statewide:

  • Commercial and/or industrial land clearing debris and brush.
  • Grass, hay, leaves, stumps and tires.
  • Construction material and debris.

During an open burn, an adult should always be present.

Source: Massachusetts State
Fire Marshal's Office