Hot Start to Carolina Fire Season

Wind whipped flames through a new north Charlotte subdivision Monday, melting the vinyl siding off two homes and scorching another -- early victims of what firefighters say could be a brutal fire season.

More than 250 brush or forest fires were sparked throughout the Carolinas over the past few days, including a large one that quickly spread to more than 75 acres Monday evening near Kings Pinnacle, part of Crowders Mountain State Park in western Gaston County.

It was in a rural area, so no homes appeared threatened, but people in Gastonia could smell the smoke from 10 miles away.

Dry, windy weather makes mid-March through May the most vulnerable time of year for wildfires in the Carolinas.

This spring could be even worse, the N.C. Division of Forest Resources says, because of hurricanes and ice storms that have swept through the state in recent years.

Strong storms leave behind downed trees and dead branches -- perfect fuel for fires.

The cold front that came through the region Monday night will help dampen the blazes somewhat. But when warm weather returns, the threat of flames will, too.

Jamie Kritzer with the N.C. forest service said the western half of the state has the most debris, from storms that battered the mountains last year.

But the Piedmont isn't immune. Some trees are still shedding limbs damaged in the December 2002 ice storm.

South Carolina has damage from tornadoes that came through last year, as well as timber killed by southern pine beetles, said Charles Ramsey, Piedmont Region Forester for the S.C. Forestry Commission.

Brush fires across both Carolinas kept firefighters busy throughout the weekend and into Monday, with more than 100 fires consuming more than 500 acres in South Carolina, and about 150 fires burning more than 600 acres in North Carolina.

Charlotte firefighters knocked down more than a dozen brush fires Saturday through Monday. Most were less than half an acre, but the one that attacked Jared Little's house in the McIntyre subdivision, off Reames Road, burned about four acres.

Little had kept the window open Monday because it was so nice out. Then the smoke alarm went off. He looked outside and saw the grass was on fire.

After calling 911, he ran outside and grabbed a garden hose. "It was just moving so fast, there was nothing I could do," he said.

Two dozen Charlotte firefighters attacked the blaze with water from both sides. It got within 10 or so yards of another row of homes before they could stop it. Smoke got into the roof and attic of a home next to Little's, forcing the family out for the night.

No one was hurt.

Firefighters aren't sure how the grass caught fire, but the most common causes are flicked cigarettes and backyard debris-burning that gets out of control.

That's what happened later Monday on Redbud Circle in northwest Charlotte. A man was cited for burning rubbish without a permit after a fire got out of control and damaged his neighbor's home. The charge is a misdemeanor.

"One of the biggest concerns around here, with all the development, is that it doesn't take more than a quarter of an acre sometimes for fire to reach a house," said Howard Williams, head forester for the Charlotte district, based in Mount Holly.

It's been a dry year so far, Kritzer said, with about 2 inches less rain than usual falling across central North Carolina.

If it stays dry, he said, this season could be remembered as "a real humdinger."


Advice from the N.C. Division of Forest Resources:

Have a valid permit for outdoor burning (some communities prohibit it, including Charlotte, which requires a permit from the fire marshal's office).

Never burn debris on dry, windy days.

Don't flick cigarette butts into the grass or out car windows.