Drought and How It Affects Wildfires

by Phillip Manuel

Climatic conditions, such as long term drought, play a major role in the number and intensity of wildfires.  During the spring and summer of 2008, southwest Virginia, southeast West Virginia, and northwestern North Carolina experienced prolonged dry conditions.  This lack of rainfall, in conjunction with very warm temperatures, allowed the forest fuels, such as dead leaves, trees and branches, to become unusually dry.

The dry forest fuels were very susceptible to the potential for fire, especially when daytime relative humidities were low and wind speeds were high. The number of wildfires reported during the spring of 2008 was high with a large number of acres burned.Virginia has records which date back to 1925, and the 30 year average is 1,449 fires for 8,338 acres per year. 1941 saw the most fires with 3,697, and 1930 had the most acreage burned at 333,023 acres.  So far in 2008 (Jan 1 – Oct 5),  there have been 1,176 fires for 41,500 acres; these numbers are for federal and state fires combined.   It is important to be alert to the increased threat of wildfires during drought conditions, especially those whose home is in a forested area, or those who plan on visiting area forests. The following are some safety tips to help protect life and property from wildfires...

1. Check with local fire authorities or public land management officials to obtain current fire restriction information.

2.  For campfires, clear the campfire site down to bare soil. Circle the fire pit with rocks, and build the campfire away from overhanging branches, dry grass, pine needles, logs and steep slopes.

3. Never leave a campfire unattended. When putting out a campfire, drown the fire until it is cool enough to touch. Keep a bucket of water and shovel nearby.

4. Homes near forest areas should have a defensible space of at least 30 feet, more if the home is on a slope.  Trees should be thinned 100 feet from buildings.  Remove lower tree branches, especially those that may overhang the roof.  Rake and clear surface fuels, such as leaves, limbs and pine needles, away from homes in wooded areas.  For detailed information on protecting your home from wildfires visit the Virginia DOF Firewise website

What to do to protect your home against wildfires