Thursday, October 23, 2014

Weekend grass fires could be preview of spring, official says

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 1/22/2014

A brief warm-up in temperatures last weekend, combined with dry and windy conditions, led to a total of nine grass fires from Friday to Monday throughout Franklin County, according to reports from the Franklin County Emergency Management Office and the Ottawa Fire Department.

Eight of those fires occurred in the rural areas of Franklin County, and one was within the 100 block of South Elm Street in Ottawa that spread to a fence and caused $500 worth of damage, the report said.

A brief warm-up in temperatures last weekend, combined with dry and windy conditions, led to a total of nine grass fires from Friday to Monday throughout Franklin County, according to reports from the Franklin County Emergency Management Office and the Ottawa Fire Department.

Eight of those fires occurred in the rural areas of Franklin County, and one was within the 100 block of South Elm Street in Ottawa that spread to a fence and caused $500 worth of damage, the report said.

With weekend temperatures warming up to the mid-60s, Alan Radcliffe said the warmer weather had people itching to get outside.

“It’s just that time of year,” Radcliffe, Franklin County Emergency Management director, said. “When it gets warm and people get outside they want to burn off some grass and it gets extremely dry and the winds we’ve had — I think some people have not prepared like they should have before they started their burns.”

The lack of moisture this winter will pose a bigger problem come spring, Radcliffe said, when many people will start to burn their fire loads.

“The problem is we’ve got a heavy fire load this spring and conditions are dry,” he said. “We haven’t had much moisture this winter so we could potentially see some pretty bad wildfires this spring.”

A burn ban was in place Saturday, he said, but a grass fire still managed to break out.

“It’s a little early for people to be burning,” he said, “but when you get 60-degree weather they want to go out and burn a pile of tree limbs in their yard and clean up their property and light a fire, and then it gets away from them because the wind picks up.”

The winds played a large role in the weekend’s grass fires, Radcliffe said, as some may have been started when there was little to no wind gusts, but increasing wind speeds may have blown some remaining hot embers into dry grass.

“They need to listen to the weather and know what the wind’s going to do,” he said.

Living outside an incorporated city requires a burn permit, Radcliffe said, and caution should be taken before, during and after a burn.

“They have to notify dispatch they’re going to burn,” he said. “They need to be able to control the fire because they’re responsible if it gets out of control. If they light a fire and it causes damage to others’ property, they may be liable for that damage.”

Farmers and ranchers tend to do controlled burns in the spring to burn off some of the vegetation on the land, Radcliffe said, but it’s those who don’t do burns regularly that a fire can easily escape them.

“It’s people with small acreages and who aren’t aware how the fire can react and gets out of hand when the wind changes directions,” he said. “It never fails someone will light a fire with the winds coming out of the west and it will change directions and come out of the south and [the fire] gets away from people. They’re not prepared and don’t have back burns in place.”

Because 2013 didn’t see a large drought like the previous year, Radcliffe said, there’s plenty of grass to be burned this spring which could lead to some fires getting out of control.

“I think we’re going to see some potential for bad wildfires this spring because of the fire load we have,” he said. “Even fires people have burned before and haven’t had problems with — there’s more dry grass and fire loads this year than in the past. People need to take caution, and we’re probably going to see more ‘no burn days’ this spring.”

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