Not only are the coldest months of the year the most dangerous for structure fires, but they also are the most perilous time for wildfires in the Southeast, Georgia Forestry Commission officials say.
The reasons for this are simple: yard waste and the need to dispose of it, said Steve Abbott, chief ranger of the Georgia Forestry Commission's Columbia County post.
"You got to clean up your yard ... and burning is a very economical way to clean up (yard debris)," Abbott said.
Though devastating wildfires that have scorched Oklahoma and Texas are not as likely to happen in Georgia because of the Peach State's topographical differences and this winter's periodic rain, Abbott warned that a property owner's negligence and inexperience with proper and safe burning methods could lead to danger.
"That danger is always present because what we have here (in Columbia County) is wild and urban interface," he said. "People are building their homes near the wildlands with a lot of fuel around homes and neighborhoods."
Coupled with a dry spell, the danger could grow, Abbott said.
State law requires that property owners obtain a burn permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission. The permits are issued for days the commission determines it is safe to burn, Abbott said, and the program is suspended when conditions are unsafe. The permits are valid only for the date and time issued.
Only natural vegetation is allowed to be burned under Georgia law; man-made materials might contain glues, dyes or other chemicals that might be hazardous, he said.
"(Property owners) need to have tools, a shovel and rake and water," Abbott said. "You never leave your fire unattended, you keep your fire small and manageable and don't burn on windy days. Make sure you have a clear area (in which to burn)."
The use of accelerants is not recommended by Georgia Forestry, and just because a fire is smoldering doesn't mean it can be safely left unattended, Abbott said.
"A fire can smolder for days, and sometimes that does cause a wildfire later on because people think it will go out on its own," he said.
"A fire will hold a lot of heat and ashes, and the wind can rekindle a fire and start a wildfire."
Georgia averages more than 8,000 wildfires per year, many caused by uncontrolled burning, according to the Forestry Commission's Web site.
Pam Tucker, the county's director of emergency services, said the county has never had a wildfire larger than 100 acres and most major fires are contained to within five to 20 acres.
"A fire is a funny animal, and it can happen in the suburbs or a metropolitan area," Abbott said. "A fire can burn through four or five yards before (firefighters) can get water to it."
Abbott said property owners also are responsible for the smoke their fires emit as it can cause a nuisance to neighbors or even a traffic hazard. He recommends homeowners notify neighbors they will be burning and that they have a permit.
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