Brush fire danger high

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With the snow gone and the foliage yet to appear, state and local officials are advising caution that conditions are ripe for wildfires.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of land in Massachusetts are destroyed by brush fires each year, according to Dave Celino, the chief forest fire warden for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. And DCR's fire rating is expected to remain moderate to high today. Brush fires are most like to occur between March and May.

Celino said this has been an average year in terms of total fires, but it has been unique because of the number of fires that started within 48 hours of heavy rainstorms.

"Both the public and the fire departments have been surprised by that," said Celino. "It's really a result of the weather pattern that we've had that's really fueling these fires."

This past week saw numerous brush fires throughout the county.

While wet weather typically creates adverse conditions for wildfires, rainy days have been followed of late by extremely dry air masses, unseasonably warm temperatures and strong winds to create ample fire-spreading conditions.

These fires spread when the top 2 to 3 inches of the forest ground, which includes leaves, small twigs and shrubs, become extremely dry. The risk dissipates when the leaf canopy fully blooms in mid-May and provides shade to the forest floor.

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Firefighters go through special training to deal with these blazes, and wear lightweight gear and helmets in order to trek long distances or traversing dangerous terrain. Dealing with fires in this area offers other challenges, Celino said, since fires can spread rapidly along steep slopes.

"Berkshire County has its own uniqueness -- a lot of very remote areas and the terrain plays a big factor in the fire behavior," said Celino.

Outdoor fires can be started by campfires or discarded cigarettes, but many spread from open burns. Celino advises people to keep water on hand, have the surrounding area remain wet, and contain the fire to at least 75 feet from any structure.

"If you get a burning permit to burn, use your head, use common sense," said Lanesborough Fire Chief Charlie Durfee.

Durfee has experience with large brush fires. One spread along Silver Street in Lanesborough two years ago this month, wiping out 168 acres of land and required 120 firefighters and more than two days to quell.

"It was a nightmare because it was just constantly going," said Durfee.

In Great Barrington, where an average of 50 permits are handed out each day, Chief Harry Jennings said this has been one of the quietest years for outdoor fires. Still, he advises caution in burning, and will sometimes cut off permitting if conditions are too treacherous.

To reach Trevor Jones:, or (413) 528-3660.


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