Md. drought turns into fire hazard As state's wildfire risk nears a high, normally soggy swamp smolders


WILLARDS -- You know it's a bad fire season when a cypress swamp starts burning.

The fire risk in Maryland is so high that a normally soggy Wicomico County swamp has gone up in flames. In the chilly hours after midnight yesterday, about 100 families were forced to leave their homes near this farm town because of dense smoke.

About 160 firefighters took most of the day to knock down the 60-acre fire, but it will smolder until it rains or until everything flammable within the swamp has burned, state fire experts said.

The Willards blaze is the most disruptive fire in a bone-dry autumn that has seen bigger and far more numerous wildfires than any of the past four years. Since Aug. 1, 303 fires have destroyed 530 acres in Maryland, compared with 167 fires and 265 acres burned over the same time last year.

With the state thirsting for rain, the danger remains high: On a standard scale of 1 to 800, the fire risk stands at 700, compared with an average score of 450 or less in November, the most fire-prone month. Firefighters are worried that when the gun-hunting season on deer opens Nov. 28, accidental fires will set bigger swaths of Maryland's woods ablaze.

"We need everybody to be extremely careful," said Alan Zentz, state fire supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. "Whatever the activity may be, if it involves fire of any kind they need to be aware of the danger and take extra precautions.

"What we're dealing with right now is a situation that's developed over the last three months because of the drought," Zentz said. Rainfall from June to September averaged 10 inches statewide; 15 1/2 inches is normal. With very little autumn rain and none in the forecast, "it's going to be two or three weeks or longer before we can get out of this situation," he said.

The fire risk is high in Maryland, Delaware, southern Pennsylvania, northern Virginia and northern West Virginia, Zentz said. That's because the jet stream, the upper atmosphere flow of air that shapes the region's weather, is blowing from the dry Midwest, rather than dipping south to pick up moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.

Greatest risk

Late fall poses the greatest wildfire risk. Falling leaves add a layer of fuel to the forest floor. With no tree cover, sunlight heats and dries the tinder. Autumn winds spread sparks. People do their part -- building campfires, smoking and burning leaves or stubbled fields. Combine those factors with dry conditions and it's a recipe for more, bigger and longer-lasting fires.

"The fires are burning into the ground," Zentz said. "They're burning that humus layer that usually has moisture in it. We now have areas where the fires are burning 6 inches, 8 inches into the ground, stump holes that have burned as deep as your waist, fires that smolder for days or even weeks at a time."

Such blazes call for extreme firefighting measures -- bulldozers to scrape away leaves and humus, down to nonflammable soils, in firebreaks 4 to 6 feet wide. In some cases, like an early November fire near Pasadena, DNR firefighters have had to bushwhack roads through the woods to reach blazes.

Bush hog ignites fire

At Willards, about 15 miles east of Ocean City, firefighters used nearly a dozen 8,600-gallon tanker trunks and a three-fourths-mile-long fire hose to pump water into a dry swamp yesterday.

The fire started Tuesday in an adjacent 50-acre field, when sparks from a bush hog ignited undergrowth. Volunteer firefighters quickly kept the blaze from threatening homes, said DNR regional fire manager Gerald Vickers. But the fire persisted in the layer of leaves, roots and muck.

Etta Molnar called emergency workers about 11 p.m. Wednesday when she realized the smoke was so thick she couldn't see past her front porch.

'Smoke just rolled'

"As soon as I opened the door to look outside, the smoke just rolled into the house," Molnar said. "I could hear the firetrucks, but the smoke was so bad you couldn't see them."

Residents of the Old Mill neighborhood about a mile from the fire were startled awake about 3 a.m. and ordered out. Most of the 200 residents were housed at the Lions Club building in Willards, where the Red Cross set up a shelter. No one was injured and no buildings burned, officials said.

At least 160 firefighters from Maryland and Delaware volunteer departments, DNR, Delaware's Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked with hoses, bulldozers and water trucks.

"They put a 'dozer line around the swamp," Zentz said. "They're flooding the area because that's the only way they're going to be able to put the fire out."

Firefighters stretched thin

David Smarte, chief of the Newark, Del., volunteer company, said firefighters were stretched thin. When he arrived early yesterday, firefighters were forced to wear respirators.

"The smoke was so thick that you'd step out of a firetruck, walk 10 or 20 feet and you couldn't see the truck," Smarte said.

At Bethel United Methodist Church, about a dozen church members scrambled to get sandwiches and sodas to firefighters who surrounded the 1841 chapel. Store shelves in Willards and in nearby Gumboro, Del., were cleaned out as the volunteer helpers bought all the bread, cheese, spiced ham and sodas they could find.

The dense smoke gradually cleared yesterday, but a gray haze lingered over the area. Television news helicopters buzzed in and out of a field behind the Willards volunteer company.

'Contained but not out'

By mid-afternoon, the fire was "contained but not out," said Vickers. "I don't expect even with this major effort it'll be completely out unless we get rain."

Fires that burn the topsoil might not cause much property damage, but they can harm the environment. Many native plants have evolved to cope with fire, which can help forests by triggering the germination of seeds and allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor.

When plant roots burn and the nutrient-rich layer of decomposing leaves is consumed, "it makes it difficult for the understory to grow back," Zentz said.

Banned campfires

To help prevent long-term harm, state officials have banned campfires in Allegany County's Green Ridge State Forest and Rocky Gap State Park. The state has stopped issuing permits to people who want to burn leaves, brush or fallow fields in Southern Maryland, on the Eastern Shore and west of Frederick County. Much of the state is urban and under a permanent ban.

If conditions don't improve, the restrictions could be extended, Zentz said. He said all Marylanders can do is "be careful, and hope that we get some rain -- hopefully before snow season starts."

Safety tips

Because of the high risk of wildfires, Maryland officials are asking everyone to take precautions:

* Be certain cigarettes, matches and other burning items are completely extinguished before throwing them away.

* Before building a campfire, clear all leaves and twigs. Make sure campfires are constantly watched. Thoroughly extinguish campfires before leaving the area.

* Get a camping permit before building a fire on state land. Campfires have been banned in an Allegany County state park and state forest, and the ban might be expanded to other areas.

* Take extra care when using power tools; their sparks are a common cause of fires.

* Park on pavement or bare ground if possible. Heat from automobiles can ignite dry grass and leaves.

* Check with local health departments or fire departments before burning leaves, yard waste or fields. Open burning is prohibited in most urban areas. In other areas, existing permits are being honored, but no new burning permits are being issued on the Eastern Shore, in Southern Maryland or west of Frederick County.

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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