Virginia burning law goes into effect as spring wildfire season begins

Rocky Mount Fire buring in April 2016, as seen from Penn Laird. Photo by D. Lee Beard

Virginia's Spring Wildfire Season begins on February 15, and the Department of Forestry says the risk is elevated in some areas of the state.

That's due to a lingering lack of rain, minimal snowfall, and growth in what are referred to as urban interface areas.

Although Virginia also has a wildfire season in the fall (this past one was incredibly dangerous), more than 60 percent of Virginia's annual average 1,000 wildfires happen in the spring - especially in March and April.

Last year, the Rocky Mount Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres in the Shenandoah National Park, requiring hotshot crews from across the country to contain the flames, began in April.

VIRGINIA BURNING LAW

To help reduce the number of wildfires in the spring, Virginia has a 4 p.m. Burning Law that goes into effect on February 15.

That law prohibits open burning between midnight and 4 p.m. each day until the end of the wildfire season on April 30. Burning is permitted between 4 p.m. and midnight, but even during that time, the Department of Forestry advises against it if the weather is ideal for fires - in cases like low humidity, warm temperatures and winds over 10 miles per hour.

“The 4 p.m. Burning Law is one of the most important tools we have in the prevention of wildfires in Virginia,” said John Miller, VDOF’s director of fire and emergency response. “The number one cause of wildfires in the Commonwealth is people burning yard debris and/or trash, and the 4 p.m. law goes a long way toward reducing the risk associated with wildfires each year.”

Breaking the burning law is a Class 3 misdemeanor, which is punishable with a fine of up to $500.

If you allow a fire to escape in Virginia, you will also be liable for the cost of putting the fire out, as well as any damage caused to the property of others.

EFFECT OF POPULATION GROWTH

The Department of Forestry says a big factor contributing to increased risk of wildfires is the amount of new homes being built in areas that were once wildlands, which cuts down on what they call the wildland-urban interface: the zone of land between human development, like subdivisions, and unoccupied land.

Fred Turck, VDOF’s fire prevention manager, said, “While a lot of this new growth takes place in ‘communities,’ we also have a lot of people building in traditionally rural areas. A wildfire can destroy a single home or multiple homes as we saw all too graphically last fall in Gatlinburg, TN. The continued growth in wildland-urban interface areas has led to enhanced collaboration among homeowners, local governments and the Virginia Department of Forestry.”

HOW TO PREPARE FOR WILDFIRE SEASON

Using the Gatlinburg wildfire as the most recent example of what can go wrong when a number of factors all align in a negative manner, the Virginia Department of Forestry is reaching out to homeowners, community leaders, fire departments, local governments and state and federal partners with an educational campaign hoping that a well-informed individual or group can make a difference.

Here are some ways you can prepare your property for the wildfire season, per the Dept. of Forestry:

• Attend community preparedness meetings;
• Follow the VDOF on Twitter (@ForestryVA) and ‘like’ them on Facebook;
• Visit the Firewise website at www.firewisevirginia.org;
• Remove all branches that touch the house, garage, shed, etc.;
• Clear all brush (tall grass, leaves, branches, weeds, etc.) within 30 feet of the home and other structures;
• Keep gutters clear of debris;
• Remove combustibles (wood, propane tanks, gas grills, motor homes, boats, ATVs and cars) from under or near structures;
• Trim branches up to 10 feet from the base of the tree and remove any vines from the trees;
• Use gravel or chunky bark for mulch;
• Install spark arrestors on chimneys;
• Keep flammable plants away from your home;
• Maintain your driveway so that the clearance is at least 12 feet wide and 12 feet high, and
• Use fire-resistant materials for your roof, deck and siding projects.