CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Just under 3,750 acres of forest land burned in West Virginia during the 2016 fall forest fire season, but West Virginia Division of Forestry Director Randy Dye said it could have been far worse.
“We were very fortunate in dodging the bullet,” said Dye. “Especially when you compare our fire occurrence and acreage burned to the rest of the southern Appalachian region.”
Dye went into the season plenty worried. The Division of Forestry was forced to lay off 34 employees amid the mid-year budget cuts. Among those 34 employees was a large percentage of the division’s fire fighting staff. State officials worried the potential for a terrible forest fire season was never more ripe. But as the season closed on December 31st, the acreage burned was less than half of what would normally be expected.
There were 211 fires in West Virginia which consumed 3,744 acres. The three leading causes for 90 percent of the fires were arson, debris burning, and equipment use.
“My greatest concern was arson,” Dye said. “We had two spots in the state where we had folks running around and setting fires. That was a real reason for concern.”
Investigators continue to probe those two trouble spots in Wayne and McDowell Counties. Although there was considerable rainfall through the fall season, it wasn’t enough to keep the forests of the state completely protected against the potential for fast moving fires. Dye said the forest fire which caused widespread destruction in Gatlinburg is the type of fire which keeps him up at night.
“What happened in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, can happen in West Virginia also.” he said.
Dye said there were times he was very close to asking the governor to declare a complete burning ban during the fall season, which is allowed in state code during extreme times of fire danger. But Dye said he never sought the declaration and they were able to handle each situation before it got too far out of control.