Firefighters warn time, conditions right for brush fires

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 1:06 a.m.

Meteorologists may call it spring, but Alle-Kiski Valley fire departments know it as brush fire season.

“March is pretty much one of the prime months for brush fires,” said Bill George, chief of Sarver Volunteer Fire Company in Buffalo Township.

George said his unit has responded to its share of brush fires this year.

“You see all that brown, dead grass or brush, it doesn't take much to ignite,” he said. “All the (brush fires) we've been on this year have been unintended fires. People burning garbage and they lost control.”

According to Armstrong County 911 Coordinator Ron Baustert, there have been nine brush fires in the county this year — six of which occurred last weekend.

Fred McMullen, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Moon, said certain weather conditions need to be met for a brush fire to occur naturally.

“You need strong winds, greater than 20 miles an hour,” he said. “And relative humidity below 20 percent.”

McMullen said this is one of the two prime fire seasons.

“Spring and fall,” he said. “In the spring, everything is starting to dry out.”

He said smaller fuel — leaves and twigs — dries out the fastest. “They could start something.”

Jim Rearick, chief at Markle Volunteer Fire Department in Allegheny Township, said his crews responded to two brush fires on Wednesday.

“One wasn't called in,” Rearick said. “A guy was doing a controlled burn, but it wasn't as controlled as he thought. Our guys saw it while they were out for the other (brush fire) and helped him.”

Rearick and George said most of the brush fires they respond to are accidentally caused by people.

“With the weather getting nice, people want to get out in their yard,” Rearick said. “They want to clean it up. They don't realize with this wind how fast it can get out of control.”

Rearick said he wouldn't recommend burning winter's waste with the recent weather conditions.

“If the weather's windy like this, you shouldn't burn at all,” he said.

Rearick said most brush fires aren't hard to fight, but they often occur during fire departments' down time.

“Most of these happen during the day, when our manpower is short and most of our guys are at work,” he said. “It's always a little bit more intense when the fire threatens a structure. That's when these can turn bad.”

According to meteorologist McMullen, conditions won't be right for brush fires in the coming weeks.

“We're going to an active pattern with systems every couple days,” he said. “The weather won't be right for them.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer.

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