Season of brush fires upon us

March 18, 2019 GMT

The season’s first brush fire happened on Thursday, and emergency responders are using it as an opportunity to educate Somerset County residents about what they can do to limit the possibility brush fires spread and destroy property.

“Brush fires are common in Somerset County,” said Joel Landis, director of Somerset County Emergency Services.

“Most importantly what we should remember is all these wind events and the harsh winter that has occurred. That has created more trees and debris to have fallen on the ground. So a lot of people are going to want to clean up their properties. and we have to practice safe and controlled burning.”

The fire last week was quietly dealt with through Somerset’s Volunteer Fire Department. A firefighter took a shovel and quelled the small embers that burned near Route 31.

The Wolf Administration announced last week that funding was available to help Pennsylvania’s rural communities increase protections from wildfires.

“Spring’s warming temperatures, sunny days, and strong winds all combine to usher in wildfire dangers that emphasize the value of having well-trained and well-equipped local firefighting forces in rural areas,” Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said in a news release. “Pennsylvania’s volunteer firefighters deserve the very best training and equipment, and these grants help them obtain both.”

In 2018, almost $646,900 was awarded to 132 volunteer fire companies serving rural areas and communities where forest and brush fires are common. The grant program, offered through DCNR and paid through federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, has awarded more than $12.5 million since it began in 1982.

Local firefighting forces in rural areas or communities with fewer than 10,000 residents qualify for the aid, which is used for training and equipment purchases directly related to fighting brush and forest fires.

Rockwood Fire Chief Chad Lytle said his department dealt with 10 brush fires last year. He said the community was at a high risk for them because of all the dead vegetation.

“We’ve seen numerous brush fires. Whether the train starts them or through burning brush. I don’t know if I have a worst one,” Lytle said. “They’re all bad. The wind and dry weather make them hard to fight. The terrain can also make it difficult. Everything is dead right now as far as the underbrush.”

Landis said they’ve had several fires that have stretched multiple acres.

“Anytime we involve a significant amount of acres or if the fire is in close proximity to structures, those are the worst kind of fires,” Landis said. “In the beginning of the spring and fall of the year, it’s bad. Until a lot of the leaves start coming under the trees, we’re vulnerable. It’s dry.”

Landis said the first brush fire was an indication that the conditions will permit those type of small disasters from occurring.

“I want to remind the public to not pick dry and windy days to do their burning,” Landis said. “They want to do it on rainy days. and they want to call a non-emergency number when they do it. That being said, they’ll be observing the controlled burn. and if someone saw the fire and called 911 we would have that listed as a controlled burn.”