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Amid spring fire season, some firefighters work to get more blazes burning

Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 12:51 AM EDT
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HUDDLESTON, Va. (WDBJ) - On a recent day in Bedford County, flames crept through the underbrush. As they crackled and spread, firefighters did the unexpected: pour on more fuel.

The fire is a controlled burn, one of dozens staged by the Virginia Department of Forestry and US Forest service every spring and fall. This one was being done at the request of a local landowner.

“There are a couple of reasons to do a prescribed burn or a controlled burn,” said David Tomkins, a forest technician for VDOF. “Fuel mitigation is one. That’s what we hear a lot of out west. But also habitat management or forest management is one we use more frequently here in the east.”

The Bedford County fire was designed to do just that. Crews tweaked their plans to clear out underbrush to promote game birds, including turkeys.

Planning the burn, like every one VDOF does, is a project that takes not hours, but sometimes weeks, according to Tomkins.

Fire crews have to asses terrain, the goals of the burn, and weather, among other things. A drop in humidity or rise in wind can send a fire spiraling out of control.

“This is probably the third or fourth time we’ve hoped to burn this particular spot,” said Tomkins.

When crews arrive for a burn, they start by building fire breaks. Sometimes, that means clearing off a road; other times, cutting a ditch through the forest.

Firefighters then huddle to discuss the game plan. Using maps and satellite images, crews identify trouble spots, and nail down where they want their fire to go, and when.

“Fire runs with the wind and runs uphill, but crawls downhill and crawls into the wind,” noted Tomkins.

When they’re ready, firefighters will pick up drip torches, small cans filled with a mix of fuels, like kerosene and diesel, to get the fire started. Working from one end of the burn area to the other, firefighters gradually dribble flaming gobs across the landscape.

“Working with fire, it’s easy for things to get out of control,” said Tomkins.

Crews stay in constant communication, and pay attention to subtle shifts in the wind. Spring and Fall are ideal for controlled burns, but they’re also the time of year fires can spin out of control.

That’s why Tomkins says, for professionals or just people burning leaves in their backyard, safety right now is paramount.

“We ask folks to be careful,” he said. “Follow the guidelines. If it’s windy, please try to burn another day.”

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