Burning Concern

Unseasonably dry weather, the lack of snow cover and a breeze make conditions ripe for brush fires, officials say.

Complying with the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s open-burning rules is a good way to prevent the fires, they say.

Fulton County Civil Defense-Fire Coordinator Steve Santa Maria said fires have been a problem countywide in recent weeks.

“I don’t think there has been a department that hasn’t had a call,” Santa Maria said. “Fire departments have been extremely busy.”

Statewide open-burning restrictions took effect in March. Under the restrictions, residential brush burning in towns with fewer than 20,000 residents is prohibited from March 16 through May 14. Small campfires and fires using charcoal or untreated wood are allowed. People cannot leave fires unattended and must extinguish the fires before leaving them. Burning garbage or leaves is prohibited year-round.

Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said there have been 20 illegal burns or brush fires in the county since April 1. The county had a spike in brush fires last weekend.

“Grass fires are out of control. Some people aren’t aware of the burn ban,” Giardino said.

According to the DEC, the chance for wildfires has increased because of unseasonably warm weather and the lack of snow cover in much of the state.

Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Jeff Smith said, “Most vegetation on top of the ground is very dry and flammable and will spread very quickly.”

The DEC issued a “red flag” forecast this week because weather conditions made fires more likely to spread.

“With the breeze, small fires can pick up quickly and rapidly,” Smith said.

He stressed the importance of the burn ban.

“It’s problematic for firefighters to get to,” Smith said of brush fires, many of which spread into fields.

Glenville Fire Chief Mike Knapik said a recent fire in his district was difficult to put out. A homeowner had a fire outside and it spread into the trees. Flames reached 20 to 30 feet in the air.

Broadalbin Fire Chief Scot Hall said crews fought a grass fire on Sand Hill Road at Herba Sand & Gravel on Wednesday.

An employee was working on the site and noticed the fire, Hall said. The cause was not determined. Firefighters spent an hour putting out the fire, which spread across an acre. No one was injured.

“It was a pretty good-size grass fire,” Hall said.

Gloversville Fire Chief Tom Groff said the state restrictions have cut down on brush fires.

Since the open-burning restrictions were enacted in 2009, the average number of spring fires per year decreased by 33.4 percent, from 3,297 in 2009 to 1,649 to 2015, according to the DEC.

Groff said dry weather and blowing winds can cause a fire to move quickly.

“The weather has been very dry and there hasn’t been a lot of rain,” Groff said.

Santa Maria said people never should burn leaves.

“I would advise people to use extreme caution,” Santa Maria said. “It doesn’t take long for fires to get out of hand.”

According to the DEC, violators of the open-burning restrictions could face a minimum fine of $500. To report environmental law violations, call 1-800-847-7332 or go to the DEC’s website.

Santa Maria said fighting the fires can be costly.

Santa Maria said anyone with questions about the burning rules can call the fire coordinator’s office at 736-5858.

“A mild winter, with a lack of snow, coupled with a little wind, can grow things quickly,” Santa Maria said. “Just a steady slight breeze, and that’s all it really takes.”

Morgan Frisch can be reached at [email protected].

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