Hold the barbecue


It was a perfect spring weekend: clear skies, mild temperatures and the beckoning outdoors. A balmy feeling of bonhomie pervaded the suburban landscape, the lawns reborn in verdant splendor, daffodils and jonquils bursting into eloquent shades of butter and eggs. A fitting occasion to haul out the dusty charcoal grill and stoke up the barbecue to celebrate the seasonal ritual. Singe a steak, char a chicken.

But wait! State officials imposed a total ban on outdoor burning as the weekend began, fearful of the spread of uncontrolled fires in field and forest amid highly threatening weather conditions. Fire departments had begged for state action. Forest Service crews reported three times as many, and much larger, fires than in normal years.

Even the showers that fell in much of Maryland this past Saturday and Sunday had limited effect, rapidly running off or evaporating in the warm, windy daytime. The problem was not just a severe shortage of winter snowfall and spring rainfall parching the ground, fire officials said. Persistent drying winds, unseasonably high temperatures and a lack of shading tree-leaf canopy have heightened the danger of brush and forest fires throughout the state.

Contrary to common belief, this state's greatest fire hazard occurs in early spring, not in hot (but humid) summer, notes Alan Zentz, state fire supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources

The statewide burning ban can perplex the suburbanite with a covered grill in the middle of a green, moist backyard. Most open burning is already prohibited, for fire hazard and air quality reasons. Even so, the risk of windblown charcoal sparks igniting tinder-dry weeds or leaves is real enough.

A $40 fine for violating the ban is not a major deterrent. The majority of fires battled by the state Forest Service this year have caused by open burning of debtis, which is already subject to fine. Fire authorities must rely on public knowledge and good will for enforcement of the statewide open burning prohibition, which was last imposed in 1988.

Authorities are hopeful that that more rain will allow the proscription to be to be lifted for parts of the state before this coming weekend, while cautioning that short-lived hard rainfall does little to alleviate months of drying conditions. In the meantime, hold the charcoal and the plans for the neighborhood barbecue.

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