With fire season straight ahead, foresters prepare for fewer resources

CROSS LANES, W.Va. — As forest fire season officially begins in West Virginia, the state Division of Forestry will have to count on backup from the National Guard or from prisoners made available by the state Division of Corrections.

That’s because, after the layoffs of 37 foresters this summer, there are fewer to battle blazes in West Virginia’s woods.

“Now that we have less personnel in the field, those fires are going to get a little larger,” said Tom Oxley, a fire forest supervisor for Region 3, which includes nine counties in southwestern West Virginia.

“We’ll have to attack the fires one side at a time. We’ll have to pick and choose our battles where we place our line.”

Much of the discussion over the Forestry layoffs so far has focused on that agency’s role in inspecting and regulating West Virginia logging sites. But the agency also works to prevent and fight forest fires in West Virginia, and forest fire season officially begins Oct. 1.

Oxley supervises dedicated fire personnel positioned in Boone and Mingo counties, and he has another coming on board in Logan. Other personnel from Division of Forestry would provide one person to all but one of the remaining counties in the region.

In other words, Oxley has 8 possible foresters to fight fires over nine counties.

“Our personnel situation is going to cause a shortfall as far as manpower being able to attend some of these fires,” he said.

Local volunteer fire departments might be able to handle or help out with some smaller fires. And the state is developing contingency plans for Division of Corrections or the National Guard to help out, but those plans could be limited by cost, geography and expertise.

Prisoners within 6 months of serving out the end of their terms could be activated if the Division of Forestry has depleted other resources, state officials said. Their role would be fire-line construction, and they would be under the direct supervision of Division of Forestry personnel and Corrections officers.

Sometimes firefighters with Forestry might have to choose among multiple fires, especially if it takes more than a day to put one out. Matters of life and limb would take top priority; then fires that pose a threat to property.

Otherwise, the decision process would be, Oxley said, “Is the fire I’m currently on a situation where if I work on it again tomorrow I’ll put out the fire? I’m probably going to finish the fire I’m on. So I can mark it off the list and move on.

“It’s a priority type thing. We’ll be looking at the different situations that arise before us and make those calls. Sometimes in our eyes it’ll be the decision we had to make, but in the public’s eyes it might not be the one they thought we should make.”

In the larger Region 2, which includes 16 counties from Randolph to McDowell, there are 18 Forestry employees remaining who might be sent to fires, said Chris White, fire specialist for that region.

“I had 38 men in this region we could send to different fires or locations,” White said. “Now we’re down to 18 — 11 full-time and 7 part-time. That’s a huge difference. It’s not unheard of for this region to have 20 fires in one day. Obviously we’re not going to be at all of them.”

The foresters are looking at the weather and wondering what’s ahead. So far it’s been dry, and that’s not good.

They expect an early fall, lots of dry leaves on the ground and, potentially, a season ripe for fire.

“It’s really a joke because there’s no way we can actually do this if its actually a dry fall,” White said. “It’s all dependent on the weather. But a fire can go from the size of a pickup truck to 50 or 60 acres before a guy could get there even when I was fully staffed.

“If we have a  dry three-week period in November, I can see a lot of fires being unmanned before we can get to them.”

As always, the Division of Forestry hopes West Virginia residents will do their part to prevent forest fires.

During fall forest fire season, Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, outdoor burning is prohibited from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

State law requires a ring or safety strip around all outdoor fires to keep them from spreading into the woods. The safety strip must be cleared of all burnable material and must be at least 10 feet wide completely around the debris pile.

People must stay on-site until the fire is extinguished and burn only vegetative materials like leaves, brush and yard clippings.

Anyone who starts a fire that escapes and causes a wildfire or forest fire is ssubject to fines ranging from $100 to $1,000.

“If they’re responsible at what they do, we should be fine,” Oxley said.

Forestry officials offer additional tips for safe outdoor burning:

    • Burn only after 5 p.m. — it’s the law — and put your fire out completely by 7 a.m.
    • Put debris in several small piles instead of one large one.
    • Never burn on dry, windy days.
    • Select a safe place away from overhead power lines, phone lines or other obstructions and where the fire cannot spread into the woods or weedy or brushy areas.
    • Clear at least a 10-foot area around the fire and make sure the area is clear of all burnable material.
    • Have water and tools on hand to extinguish anything that may escape the burn area.
    • Be conscientious of neighbors and don’t burn debris that produces a lot of smoke at times when smoke does not rise. If the smoke spreads out near the ground instead of rising, put out the fire and burn another time.
    • Stay with the fire at all times until it is completely out. Leaving a fire unattended for any length of time is illegal.
    • Call 911 immediately if a fire does escape.
    • Contact local city government offices for possible burning ordinances when burning within city limits.

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