Md. has potential for big wildfires


Recently in western Colorado, a wildfire blew up Storm King Mountain with disastrous impact, the leading edge of the flames towering over pine trees as it was swept along by 50 mph winds and spread at rates estimated to be 100 feet per minute.

The blaze on Storm King Mountain destroyed 2,000 acres and killed 14 elite firefighters. And even having seen newspaper photographs and television film footage of the events, it still is hard to comprehend how a 50-acre fire exploded to become 40 times its original size.

Large wildfires are a phenomenon of the West, where large tracts of wilderness exist. But wildfires occur everywhere, and they pose a significant danger in Maryland.

"We have the potential for large wildfires in Maryland -- not as large as those you see and read about in the West -- but we experience across Maryland an average of 5,000 wildfires every year," said Alan Zentz, fire supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources Forest Service.

Most wildfires in Maryland never reach a tenth of an acre in size, Zentz said. But 600 or more a year have the potential to reach an acre or two, and it is not uncommon in brush, marsh or forest

lands for fires to grow to anywhere from 10 to 50 acres.

"We can have and have had several fires to 1,000 acres in size in the marshes of the Eastern Shore," Zentz said, adding that drying grasses and reeds in the state's 200,000 acres of marshland are especially volatile.

Marsh fires burn out fast, Zentz said, and generally require little supervision or containment because the area of a fire almost always is limited by creeks, rivers, roadbeds or other existing firebreaks.

"What we do watch out for," Zentz said, "is the potential for the fire to spread to forest land or structures."

In Southern Maryland and on the lower Eastern Shore this year, the potential for wildfires is high because the ice storms of last winter downed large numbers of trees, limbs and branches and the forest floors are now a mass of kindling and yule logs.

Overall, the number of wildfires in the state is running about average, and there have been no large fires to deal with.

"A good portion of those average 5,000 wildfires occur in the metro areas of the state -- Montgomery, Howard, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties -- and those fires are kept small by good services," Zentz said.

But in rural areas, where there may be 600 or more wildfires per year, an average of 8,000 acres will be destroyed annually.

Maryland has a superb network of firefighters, Zentz said.

But while the five metro counties are served by full-time firefighters, the rest of the state is served by 360 volunteer fire companies.

"They play a tremendous role in the suppression of fires," Zentz said. "They are well organized, respond quickly and efficiently and are our partners in this."

But fire safety also requires the cooperation of each citizen, whether farmer, suburbanite, hiker, fisherman, hunter or camper.

Ninety-eight percent of the wildfires in Maryland are caused by people who make mistakes in open areas -- for example, while burning debris, extinguishing smoking materials or even while using welding tools to repair farm equipment.

Arson also is a leading cause of wildfires.

Prevention, Zentz said, is a matter of knowing the condition of your surroundings.

"A lot of people think that the worst time of year for fires is the summer," Zentz said. "That is not correct.

"The worst time is February, March and April, when we have just come out of winter. The snow packs down the leaf matter, which is already decaying and dry. The wind dries it out further and, before the trees have their new leaves, that makes the conditions right for fire to spread rapidly."

The next worst time is October and November, after the canopy of leaves has fallen and the forest floor again is exposed to direct sunlight.

People going into the woods or marshes at any time of the year, Zentz said, should know the conditions.

"If you are a deer hunter, for example, you know immediately the conditions," Zentz said, "because as soon as you put your first footstep into the woods, you can tell from how much noise you make whether it is wet or dry."

State parks and forests are kept informed of fire potential, and campers are notified of fire conditions. Day trippers should note postings and ask if they do not see any.

The potential for dangerous fires does exist. In Green Ridge State Forest in 1991, 200 acres near the Banner Overlook burned. This year in Western Maryland, Zentz said, large tracts of timber denuded by gypsy moths present a significant fire danger.

"It just takes common sense," Zentz said. "If you are camping, use an established fire ring, make sure the brush is cleared away from the fire site, have water or shovels on hand to prevent the accidental spread of fire. If you are smoking, be certain your matches or smoking materials are out, and break them into little pieces to ensure they are not smoldering.

"There is always the danger of fire in woodlands, and because people are curious they can get themselves into situations they shouldn't.

"If there is a spreading fire, don't hang around. Get out and report it as quickly as you can."

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