CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The lack of rainfall is weighing heavy on the minds of many, but few more than the Director of West Virginia’s Division of Forestry Barry Cook. According to Cook, the state has experienced 91 forest fires in the month of September and that is even before the start of fall forest fire season which begins Tuesday.
“To compound that, over the past few years it’s been extremely wet and it’s created a heavy understory of brush. Now all of that is drying out and creating a fire hazard all across the state. Particularity south of Route 50,” Cook said in an appearance on MetroNews Talkline Monday.
The fires so far have consumed about 560 acres. Even more concerning to Cook is 31 of those fires occurred since last Monday and burned about 434 acres.
“Really to have any fires in September that amount to anything is extremely unusual,” Cook told the statewide radio audience.
Barry Cook, Director of @WVForestry, tells @HoppyKercheval about the burning ban in West Virginia and ongoing fire hazards in West Virginia forests. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIAoe1 pic.twitter.com/k9FboscXB0
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) September 30, 2019
The drastic step to put a burning ban into place happened more than a week ago and now all outdoor burning is banned in the state until further notice. The only exceptions, according to Cook, are campfires within the confines of a fire pit at a campsite in a federal or state park. Cook said those areas are under 24-hour surveillance by trained fire fighting specialists.
The state is about nine inches below average rainfall so far in 2019. Should a fire break out, finding water to fight it may become an issue.
“Reports from our foresters around the state are that many of the water supplies in southern West Virginia are in very critical condition. Mingo County reports the Tug Fork River is at two feet,” he said.
Jason Frazier, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said October will start warm.
“As we start out the month of October, unfortunately, we’re going to see potentially near or record heat to start the month, the next three days we have forecast highs that are going to be approaching both the record high temperature and a record maximum low temperature,” he said.
Pictures shared across social media reflect the same in the high mountains of West Virginia with Blackwater Falls at a trickle compared to its normal flow. There are also vast expansions of dry or nearly dry creek beds for mountain streams.
“We’re approaching the situation where a fire could blow up quickly. The last critical fire situation across the state was in 2010 and there were several thousand acres consumed by numerous fires across the state that year.”
The National Weather Service forecasts a cold front passing through the region on Thursday, resulting in cooler temperatures. Another cold front is slated for Sunday, which also brings the next best chance for rain.
Cook is taking no chances. This week members of the Division of Forestry will be conducting training work with select members of the West Virginia National Guard in anticipation of their deployment to help fight the fires wherever they may occur in the Mountain State in the weeks ahead.
MetroNews’ Mike Nolting contributed to this story.