Local fire chiefs are urging homeowners to burn outdoors this winter, hoping to avoid the rash of early spring brush fires of recent years in Berkshire County.

The Massachusetts open burn season officially began Wednesday and runs through May 1, requiring property owners to obtain daily permits from their city or town fire departments. They can either call local fire officials or in the case of 13 Berkshire communities, go online at bcburnpermits.com.

Lanesborough Fire Chief Charlie Durfee says optimum conditions exist now for "controlled" burns, compared to the potentially dry, windy weather of April -- a month plagued by area brush fires the last two years.

"Let’s get it done soon as there is no snow, or even the forecast of big storms, in the near future," Durfee said.

In April 2012, nearly 100 firefighters from around the county battled a two-day brush fire on 30 acres of hilly terrain near October Mountain State Forest in Lee. Unusually warm weather created tinderbox conditions that fueled a controlled burn that got away from the homeowner.

Lanesborough, Pittsfield, Egremont and Windsor were among the communities last April whose fire departments battled stubborn brush fires that scorched dozens of acres. The Egremont fire also destroyed a barn and singed a home. The Egremont and Windsor fires, also fanned by the wind, were caused by embers that people thought they had doused, but later had re-ignited.

Aside from common sense, fire officials say homeowners must adhere to state regulations governing outdoor burning. The rules include:

n Never leave a brush fire unattended and make sure it’s extinguished when done burning.

n Burn only brush in one small pile at a time. No leaves, grass, hay, stumps, construction debris or any other materials can be tossed on the fire.

n A garden hose or other appropriate means to put out the fire must be ready at all times.

n All open burning must be at least 75 feet from a building or structure.

Burning permits are available from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with open fires allowed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to state Department of Environmental Protection Regulations.

Berkshire communities with online permitting can easily track those who are lawfully burning outdoors, according to Windsor Fire Chief Scott Eastwood.

"In the past, we didn’t have a snapshot of who was burning, and hopefully this alleviates people calling the emergency dispatcher to notify us they are burning," Eastwood said.

If it becomes too dry or wind is an issue, state and local officials can halt or cancel outdoor burns -- even at a moment’s notice -- until the fire danger passes.

"The conditions are deteriorating right now," Durfee noted. "If we go two weeks without rain or snow, the top leaves [on the ground] can start to dry out."

To reach Dick Lindsay:

rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,

or (413) 496-6233

Online burn permits

Residents of Becket, Cheshire, Dalton, Great Barrington, Lanesborough, Lee, Lenox, Monterey, Peru, Pittsfield, Richmond, Stockbridge, Windsor can access a burn permit online at www.bcburnpermits.com.

Dalton residents must visit the fire station between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and pay a $5 fee for the season prior to obtaining their first permit.