Brush fires pose threat around early spring


A few warm, rainless days in a row and a gust of wind can set an acre or more ablaze this time of year.

Local fire departments are keeping a watchful eye on the weather as temperatures rise and open burn season is underway through April -- the perfect mix for brush fires.

"We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best," said Cheshire Fire Chief Thomas Francesconi. "It never seems to take much to start a brush fire."

The cause, frequently, is a backyard burn that gets out of control, but just as easily, embers from a charcoal grill can set off a fire, Francesconi said.

Last year in Massachusetts, brush fires were blamed in three deaths and 26 injuries to firefighters. The majority happened in April.

The ground remains wet in many places, especially in wooded areas thanks to melted snow. Change comes fast, though, particularly when temperatures top 70 degrees.

"It all depends how quick things dry out," said Adams Fire Chief Paul "PJ" Goyette. "With full sun and high wind, stuff dries out pretty quick."

And a solid layer of dry vegetation above the ground is all that’s needed to fuel a brush fire once it starts.

"If the transition from spring to summer goes slow, conditions won’t be too bad," said Pittsfield Deputy Fire Chief Keith Philips. "But if things get hot very quickly, it could be trouble."

Philips said conditions aren’t yet critical but, based on historical precedent, he expects two or three mid-sized brush fires in the near term.

State firefighters fought a two-alarm brush fire in Monson late last month, the state’s largest since winter broke.

Elsewhere in the country, notably Wisconsin, dry, hot conditions have led to larger blazes. In Illinois, investigators in the city of Zion believe sparks from a passing train were enough to begin a brush fire which charred an area roughly 18 blocks long earlier this month.

The Obama administration this week released a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management plan, which assesses risk around the country and provides insights on community preparedness and how best to counter brush and wildfires.

That climate change -- drier, hotter and all around more erratic weather -- will lead to more fires is presupposed by the document’s composers.

"By establishing national priorities and ensuring alignment of programs, policies, regulations, and actions to national direction, meaningful reductions in risk are possible through concerted, collaborative implementation," the document reads.

One key aim set forth by the writers is to cut down on the incidence of conflagrations caused by people, which account for the vast majority of fires nationwide.

Local regulations attempt to do the same.

Fire departments probably watch the weather closer than anyone excepting meteorologists in April, when warm weather and the burn season overlap.

Day after day, they grant residents burn permits and sometimes revoke them within hours with a turn in the weather. They do this by phone or online.

"Burning is a privilege, not a right," North Adams Fire Director Steve Meranti said.

In recent years, Cheshire and 13 other Berkshire towns from Becket to Windsor and many in between have transitioned to an online burn permit application and regulation system, thanks to Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Francesconi said the town issues around nine online permits per day and "the system has worked great for us."

Apart from regulation, there is another tool possessed by all that can help cut down on brush fires: Common sense. "It’s your friend," Meranti said.

To reach Phil Demers:
or (413) 281-2859.
On Twitter: @BE_PhilD


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