Conditions ripe for wildfires in region

by Bill Nachman - Posted on Jul 14, 2010 - 05:14 PM

State forestry officials and Gov. Bob McDonnell are warning Virginians that conditions are ripe for wildfires across the commonwealth.

Little rainfall in the past several weeks and temperatures regularly soaring above 95 degrees for an extended period of time are contributing to the wildfire threat, McDonnell said last week, prior to scattered rainfall received in parts of the state during the past few days.

Locally, Jeff Darr, area forester for Gloucester and Mathews counties, said that "a little bit of rain has helped some," but much more is needed. A prolonged, light rain, which could penetrate the soil instead of a fast-hitting rain that quickly runs off the very dry ground, would be best, he said.

When it rains just a little after it’s been very dry, Darr said sometimes a thunderstorm’s lightning will strike a hollow tree, with the fire smoldering inside the hollowed-out part before the tree topples to the ground and ignites the nearby forest floor. In those cases, the outside of the tree will be damp, but its interior is dry and conducive to a smoldering fire.

It’s been so dry, McDonnell said, that last week the drought index scale showed most of Virginia in the 500+ range, where it would normally be closer to 200 in the summer months. The drought index scale, which the state Department of Forestry uses to rank the likelihood of fire danger based on ground moisture, ranges from 0-800, where 0 equals total ground saturation and 800 is considered desert-like conditions.

Darr said that the DOF index taken at its regional office in Tappahannock was 620 on Tuesday morning; no index is kept at the Gloucester office. The DOF website said that on the index, 0-200 has soil and fuel with high moisture content and most fuels will not readily ignite or burn; 200-400, fuels will more readily burn and fire can move across an area with no gaps; 400-600, fire intensity significantly increases and fire burns in all directions exposing mineral soils in some locations; 600-800, fire burns to mineral soil with stumps burning to the end of underground roots.

The biggest wildfire in Mathews in recent weeks, Darr said, was in early July at Bavon. That marsh fire, which covered about three acres, was so intense that when Darr went to investigate, he was able to walk on ground that he usually would sink into.

In Gloucester, the biggest wildfire in recent weeks, Darr said, was reported near Gloucester Point campground in the lower county in early July.

DOF officials and McDonnell urge residents to be aware of sparks being emitted from equipment to the dry ground or forest floor. These sparks, such as those coming from a vehicle’s exhaust system, can cause major damage in such dry conditions.

To learn more about Virginia’s wildfire laws, go to www.dof.virginia.gov. To report a wildfire, local residents should call 911.

Darr is assisted by Nelson Jarvis, a forestry technician. The local forestry office is located on Ware House Road near Gloucester Court House.