Possibility of wildfires threatens Virginia
By The Associated Press
Virginia scientists are warning that intense wildfires could
scorch state forests this fall because past fire-prevention
strategies and drought conditions have allowed dead wood and brush
to accumulate.
"Our expectations are that (the fire season) could be horrible
unless the weather pattern changes," said Shepard Zedaker, a fire
researcher at Virginia Tech.
Virginia's fall fire season typically begins in October, as
leaves blanket the forest floor. They burn easily and provide
kindling that help wildfires ignite.
For much of the last century, forest fires have been dealt with
by smothering them as they occur. This practice creates a problem
because dead wood and brush accumulate, said Dave Smith, a forest
researcher at Virginia Tech.
"If we stop fires, fuels build up and as a result the next fire
is often hotter, and more difficult to control," he said.
This year, signs point to a difficult fire season.
"Midsummer is an unusual time to have fires, but we've had
several here in Virginia this summer and we expect there could be
more," Zedaker said.
Leaves, dead wood and brush contribute to the forests' "fuel
load" - a term scientists use to describe the amount and type of
ignitable materials present. These fuels stay in the forest until
they burn or decompose.
Under moist, humid conditions, the leaves and dead wood
decompose. But during a drought, the decay slows and they
accumulate. For the past few years, Virginia's drought has
intensified the accumulation and the threat of fire.
"We have had some major fires (this year) in Virginia because
it's been so dry," Zedaker said.
That is troubling because fires in areas with high fuel loads
are "very difficult to control once they get started," Smith
said. Uncontrolled fires put people and their property in jeopardy.
That does not mean Virginia will endure the colossal wildfires
that have charred the Southwest this year. Fire behaves differently
in the eastern part of the country, Smith said. A major difference
is that there is more rain and humidity in the East.
The weather, geography and the fuels present in a forest govern
the spread of fire. Fire programs focus on managing fuel because
firefighters cannot control weather or geography.
Prescribed burning - the planned, deliberate burning of a
woodland area - has been a controversial means of controlling fuel.
It reduces the risk and number of fires each year. Controlled
burning has been used successfully in California forests since the
1960s. However, in 2000, investigators suggested that the
devastating Los Alamos, N.M., fire began as a prescribed burn that
raced out of control. The fire destroyed 260 homes and forced the
evacuation of 25,000 people.
Despite those risks, prgsksibed burns are necessary, Zedaker
said. If nothing is done about the heavy fuel loads, huge,
dangerous fires will continue, he said.
So far this year in Virginia, trained professionals from state
and federal agencies have conducted prescribed burns of more than
16,000 acres.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press