The January ice storm that nearly froze Columbia County is now setting it on fire.
With dry weather conditions, county firefighters attribute debris burning as the primary cause for a rash of grass and brush fires during the past two months.
"Because of the storm damage, everyone is trying to clean up their yards," Martinez Fire Department Battalion Chief Danny Kuhlmann said. "They build these big fires, and they need to burn just a little at a time."
Martinez firefighters have fought 12 woods fires and 58 grass fires so far this year, according to statistics provided by the department.
Georgia Forestry Commission rangers have responded to 34 brush fires in Columbia County this year to plow fire breaks - a 6-foot wide, 12-inch deep strip of upturned earth which prevents a fire from spreading.
Rangers were called in to plow breaks only 15 times for all of 2003, Chief Ranger Steve Abbott said.
"I think we had a lot of people that got out in March and started burning off the rubble from the ice storm," he said. "Many of these grass fires are controlled burns that got out of hand."
Although the ice storm created more rubble to burn than in past years, wildfires originating from debris burning is nothing new.
From 1995 to 2002, 239 wildfires have scorched nearly 720 acres in Columbia County, according to statistics from the county Emergency Management Agency.
The leading cause for wildfires each of those years was debris burning, which accounted for 103 wildfires destroying more than 280 acres of land.
On a state level, Abbott said the number of wildfires Georgia Forestry has been called in to plow on is up 126 percent in 2004 compared to the same months during the previous five years. The number of acres burned from wildfires in Georgia is 16,601, up 79 percent.
"We have a very good crew out here that has kept wildfires from damaging people's homes, but, at this rate, it could only be a matter of time," he said. "We've been lucky nothing really serious has happened."
Recent weather patterns are not helping.
Since January, the Augusta area has had 9.55 inches of rain. That total normally is 15.55 inches, National Weather Service meteorologist Leonard Vaughan said. This time last year, the area already had 17.77 inches of rain, he said.
"No rain. Dry conditions. High wind. Those are a reason we've been having more brush fires lately," Kuhlmann said. "Wind is like adding gasoline to a wildland fire."
Here are a few safety precautions fire officials want homeowners to practice when burning debris:
- Seek a permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission before burning debris
- Inform local firefighters when burning debris
- Burn only small piles at any given time
- Keep a water source close by
- Don't leave the fire unattended
- Burn debris only in daylight hours
- Keep the burning debris far away from any structures
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