Dry, windy days sparking brush fires

By JACK SUNTRUP

@JackSuntrup

Published: 04-18-2017 8:25 AM

SOUTHAMPTON — When 16-year-old Damien Cox caught a faint burning smell Sunday afternoon, he assumed the scent was wafting from a neighbor’s kitchen. It was Easter, after all.

“So we didn’t think anything of it,” he said.

Later, his godfather spotted the flames. The field behind his house was on fire. The only thing separating the field from Cox’s house on Brickyard Road was not reassuring: abandoned railroad tracks covered in leaves, brush and trees. Cox rushed outside.

“I was chillaxing in the house, getting ready for the party we were about to have,” he said. The Southampton Fire Department arrived. “And I come out here running, helping everybody, I just, didn’t have time to think — just, quick decisions.”

A dozen fire departments helped douse the flames, which charred 12 acres on Easter Sunday. Cox said he helped firefighters drag hose through the woods in those first frantic minutes. Later that afternoon, he toted an Arizona tea jug filled with water into the woods, searching for smoldering brush.

Across the state, fire departments are grappling with ideal brush fire conditions: high temperatures, dry ground, low humidity and trees that have yet to bud. April is typically the worst month for brush fires, according to the state, as the snowpack recedes and reveals dead and dry ground.

Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, said DCR assisted in more than 35 brush fires across the state Saturday and Sunday — including fires in Hadley, Hatfield, Southampton, Belchertown, Amherst and Shutesbury.

He said most of the fires were small, but one fire in New Marlborough, in southern Berkshire County, burned 47 acres and threatened a house.

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He said 97 percent of all brush fires in Massachusetts are caused by humans.

The fires coincide with open burning season, which lasts from January until May 1. Those who want to burn seek permits from local fire officials, and those officials get the final say on whether to issue a permit.

In Hatfield, permits are doled out each morning before 10 a.m. if fires are permitted for that day. Hatfield and other municipalities announce on Facebook or their websites whether burns will be permitted any particular day.

On Monday, Hampshire County was under a “high fire danger,” according to the National Weather Service.

William Babcock, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Taunton office, said the risk of wildfires will diminish Tuesday. Although relative humidity is expected to be low at 25 percent, wind gusts are not expected to be as intense as Monday, he said.

“Usually we get concerned when we see the minimum relative humidity of the day in the 20s or lower at the same time that we have the wind blowing at 20 miles per hour or higher,” he said.

“It’s not like we’re completely out of the woods, but it will be an improvement over what the region experienced today with northwest winds gusting to 25 to 30 miles per hour,” Babcock said.

In Hatfield, Fire Chief Stephen Gaughan said the department responded to a brush fire on Mountain Road on the Whately/Hatfield line on April 10, where about 4 acres burned. He said that fire was sparked after an earlier, permitted burn rekindled three days later.

“It was a permitted burn three days prior that had rekindled from wind and dry conditions and then blown into the woods,” Gaughan said Monday morning. “People should also re-evaluate their past permitted burns to make sure they were extinguished even a few days later.”

Monday afternoon, the Hatfield department was dispatched to 43 Dwight St., where a man was burning wood without a permit. The wind blew, and several trees in a swamp on the property caught fire.

“This is exactly what we talked about,” Gaughan said at the scene.

State and local authorities have several instructions for open burning, and minimizing risk:

• Never use gasoline, kerosene or other flammable liquids to start a fire.

• Start small and build up; this helps keep the fire in check.

• Stay away from utility lines.

• Never leave a fire unattended. Watch it until it is completely extinguished.

• Be cognizant of wind conditions and don’t delay calls to the fire department for help. “Sudden wind change is how most open burning gets out of control,” the state website says.

• To douse the fire completely, burn it down to coals, drench them, spread them again and repeat.

• Seek ways not to burn in the first place. Chipping and composting are two alternatives.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.

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