Experts offer recommendations for leaf burning in changing season

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Weather, timing and defensive space crucial in preventing fires

With leaves falling in the changing seasons, homeowners are beginning their annual fall ritual of raking, bagging and burning the leaves.

While most agree to use common sense when burning leaves, so as not to burn more than just leaves, experts advise to first check the weather forecast to see if it's a good time to burn, and to plan the burn.

Local fire departments, law enforcement and the National Weather Service recommend checking weather conditions and avoiding burns altogether during red flag warnings.

Also known as a fire weather warning, the warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now, or will shortly, and that a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior.

On Oct. 19 at 8:58 a.m., a red flag warning was issued by the National Weather Service in Springfield for portions of Missouri. The warning forecasted gusty winds, low humidity and dry fuels along and north of a line from Joplin to Versailles. Winds were expected to increase between 15-20 miles per hour from late morning through the afternoon with gusts as high as 30 miles per hour. Humidity was expected to drop to 25 percent by mid-day.

Typically, a red flag warning can occur before spring or after fall, and when a geographical area has been in a dry spell for a week or two. The criteria to issue the warning, according to the weather service, includes: sustained winds averaging 15 mph or greater; relative humidity less than or equal to 25 percent; a temperature of greater than 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and in some states, dry lightning and unstable air. Much like conditions must be ideal for a tornado to form, the combination of winds, dry fuels and low humidity are the perfect storm to create fires that can quickly become out of control. Especially in area grasslands, where fine fuels are dry.

In short, if homeowners fail to check forecasts and factor in weather conditions before burning leaves, a fire could easily devastate property and endanger lives.

Cassville Public Works Director Steve Walensky said after hearing the red flag weather report, he knows it's best to wait to burn leaves, and would advise any homeowner of the same.

"Any time they issue a red flag warning, unless it's absolutely critical to burn, I wait until conditions are more favorable," he said. "It's common sense that if there's even a chance of getting a fire started, you wait."

The criteria for issuing a warning can also depend on an area's local vegetation type, topography and distance from major water sources. Outdoor burning bans may be issued by local law and fire department agencies.

"It's been dangerously dry," said Mick Epperly, Barry County sheriff. "Basically, if you have to burn, make sure the fire is doused out, because with everything being brown right now and with wind, it could get away from you real quick. We've had all this rain this year, and before we get into fall, it starts getting dry."

Chuck Miner, District Administrator and Assistant Chief of the Cassville Fire Department, offered three additional precautions for homeowners to take when burning leaves: don't walk away from a fire, burn later in the day and create defensive space.

"A fire will burn depending on wind, dry air and time of day," he said. "But, conditions can be different in the north part of the county than the south. The farther north, the more grasses, cattle and fescue, and farther south, the more wooded areas with a mix of shrubs and trees.

"We had one grass, low-intensity fire in a green field a couple weeks ago. Someone was doing fuel burning along a fence row, got diverted, and it got away from them. Most of the time, fall fires will be of low intensity. It's best not to take a break from your game then come back. Take time and plan it out. That's what's most important. Just keep an eye on it."

Miner, who has a background in the forest service, recommends burning later, such as the the evening when the humidity changes, as to avoid the possibility of igniting nearby grasses.

"It all depends on weather systems," he said. "At night, there might not be low humidity, but at 2 in the afternoon, [a fire] could take off depending on humidity.

"Most of the time, people burn in the afternoons and evenings. We've had a couple occasions of leaf burning getting out of control. Do small piles late afternoon and follow the city ordinances if in the city."

According to the Cassville city ordinance, burning (of leaves or other items) in the public right-of-way is prohibited, and a violation constitutes a misdemeanor.

"You also need to create defensive space around structures," Miner said. "That means putting plenty of space between the fire and surrounding structures. We've had fires before that have gotten into outbuildings because there's not defensive space."

Above all, Miner advised to use common sense.

"For instance, look at what the weather is going to be like six hours from now if you'll still be burning," he said. "If you start early in the morning, humidity's going to change significantly. What's controllable at 10 a.m. is not going to be at 2 p.m. It's a driving factor.

"We do have our fire danger sign, and it's set at low currently. We rarely change it unless we start having some real yo-yo days, which this area can have."

Fore more information, the Missouri Department of Conservation offers an illustrated, fire safety checklist for homeowners at http://tinyurl.com/oets7t6. If residents have questions about burning, they can call the fire department at 417-846-4005 or the city at 417-847-4441, if the burning is within city limits.

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