Field Notes: Fire Season is Coming – Be Prepared!

By Heather Tuck, VDOF Eastern Region Fire Specialist

Happy February! As we move into this month, my mind, along with many others at Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), turns to preparing for the upcoming spring fire season. It may not look like it outside (there are five inches of glorious snow outside my window right now), but we are quickly approaching fire season in Virginia. As a fire program specialist, my job is to assist with these preparations in any way I can, whether it is making sure our firefighters have the equipment and training they need, helping communities to prepare, or sharing knowledge about fire season and the 4 PM Burning Law.

So why does Virginia have fire season in the spring? Virginia’s fire season takes place in the spring every year. All the leaves that fell last autumn are on the forest floor. The days are beginning to lengthen. Reaching through the leafless branches of the trees, sunlight dries out those fallen leaves, creating a cured fuel bed. These conditions make it easier for fires to catch and spread, making it more difficult for wildland firefighters to control them. Until the new leaves burst forth, we will be on watch for wildfires.

What is the 4 PM Burning law? To help prevent wildfires, in the 1940s, the Commonwealth of Virginia put into place the 4 PM Burning Law. The law states that from the hours of midnight to 4pm, no open air burning is allowed within 300 feet of woods or dry grass, during the period of February 15 to April 30. Humans are the number one cause of wildfires in Virginia, which makes this law a useful tool to help prevent the spread of wildfires.

Why 4 p.m.? Relative humidity reaches its lowest point typically in the midafternoon. At the same time, temperatures have reached their highest point. Generally, after 4 p.m. humidity goes up, temperatures drop, and wind dies down. With these reduced conditions, fires in the evening are generally easier to control, which is why Virginians are allowed to burn after 4 p.m. Of course, occasionally weather conditions are so dry and windy that it is not advisable to burn at all. Always check the weather before burning, so you are not caught in an unsafe situation.

We try to incorporate this information about the 4 PM Burning Law and fire season into training programs and events, so that it becomes common knowledge within Virginia communities. VDOF Five Forks Work Area foresters and technicians did a great job at a recent Junior Emergency Technician (JET) wildland fire training for the junior Powhatan Fire Department members. Not only did they educate teenagers about fire season, but also about the life of a wildland firefighter, wildland fire equipment, and personal protective gear. At the end of the day, these junior fire members gained firsthand experience building a fire line. I think parents were rather impressed to see their kids out in the woods with rakes and shovels, working hard to dig a path that would stop a wildfire. I know that I enjoyed teaching students who were enthusiastic, asked questions, and were willing to get out in the woods and learn.

Fireline raked through wooded area

Another recent event where VDOF was able to spread information about Virginia’s wildfire season was a recent training with York Fire Department. The Blackwater Work Area forester and technician did a great job of teaching recent fire department recruits how to fight wildfires. This included a lecture about the technical aspects of wildfires, as well as a demonstration with a VDOF type 6 engine and fire dozer. At the end of the day, the firefighters constructed hand line, giving them a new appreciation for how fast a dozer can plow fire line. These trainings are great opportunities to share knowledge and experience as well as foster good relationships with the local fire departments.

As VDOF firefighters continue to prepare, please remember this message about fire season. During this time of year, be aware of the risk of burning. Make sure you understand the law and have checked the weather, if you plan to burn. For more information, always feel free to contact your local VDOF forester or look at the VDOF Burning and 4 PM Burning Law FAQ page. Now get outside and enjoy this weather!

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