Fulton Township brush fire

Firefighters control hot spots at the scene of a brush fire at the rear of a farm on Mason Dixon Road in Fulton Township Monday, March 14, 2021.

THE ISSUE: There were 27 reported local wildfires called in to the Lancaster County 911 center on Sunday. “One of those fires in Lancaster Township sparked an apartment blaze, displacing four people and their pets; another in Conestoga Township ignited a barn; and in West Donegal Township, firefighters were called to extinguish flaming brush and debris that had fallen onto railroad tracks,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro and Ty Lohr reported. Officials say early spring is the most common time of the year for Pennsylvania wildfires; Saturday is the first day of spring.

While Thursday’s rain might temporarily lessen the immediate threat posed by wildfires, our general awareness of that threat — especially this time of year — is not what it should be.

For one thing, there’s the dangerous misperception that wildfires are only a California problem or a problem of the American West. News coverage of the deadly and devastating scope of those Western fires may help to drive that misperception home.

Mike Hall, one of Lancaster County’s forest fire wardens, told LNP | LancasterOnline that the misperception can lead many to ignore local “red flag” warnings, such as the one that was issued Sunday by the National Weather Service.

Such warnings are issued when critical fire/weather conditions are either occurring or imminent due to a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and dry fuels. Fires that develop during these times can quickly grow out of control. They can be serious.

“Brush fires can kill you,” Hall said. “They are not stationary.”

It’s crucial that we take warnings seriously and act cautiously during fire season. Failure to do those things might have led to some of last weekend’s fires. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says 99% of all wildfires are caused by humans.

“People make bad decisions,” Rick Deppen, who manages a state wildfire program for a nine-county region, including Lancaster, told LNP | LancasterOnline.

One of the biggest precautionary measures we can take is a commonsense one.

“People shouldn’t be burning on windy days,” Conestoga Fire Company Chief Larry Frankford Jr. said.

We learn from a young age not to be reckless with fire. So we shouldn’t need reminders that when we have a combination of dry conditions and gusty winds, the last thing we should do is provide a literal spark.

Sparks, embers and flaming debris can jump several feet or be snatched up by the wind and cause disaster far from their original source.

Embers, especially, can remain dangerous for a long time. A Sunday barn fire in Conestoga Township was likely the result of embers from an outdoor trash pile that hadn’t been burned for two weeks.

“The wind is what did it. The wind rekindled the embers,” Frankford told LNP | LancasterOnline.

Carelessly discarded cigarettes also can lead to tragedy. That appears to have been the case in Lancaster Township on Sunday. As Sauro and Lohr noted in their news story, “Firefighters were initially called to the area for a brush and grass fire outside of an apartment. But when firefighters arrived the brush fire appeared to be out, and smoke was instead coming from the roof of a building.”

The most terrifying regional wildfire Sunday started in northern York County and burned about 150 acres in and near Michaux State Forest, according to the York Daily Record. Reignited embers from a recent campfire might have been the cause there, though an official investigation is underway.

If you’ve had an outdoor fire recently and a “red flag” warning is issued, the National Weather Service offers this guidance: “Drown fires with plenty of water and stir to make sure everything is cold to the touch. Dunk charcoal in water until cold. Do not throw live charcoal on the ground and leave it.”

If you think these steps seem like a hassle, consider what a hassle (and possibly much worse) it would be to recover from an out-of-control fire.

Deppen is more succinct: “Just be smart.”

Being smart about all of this will be more crucial moving forward.

Climate change is shifting global weather patterns and causing many weather events to be more extreme. That can include droughts and wind — the ingredients of wildfires.

Crystal Kolden, a former firefighter who is now a college professor researching wildfires, wrote this in a Washington Post op-ed last year: “There is widespread agreement among fire scientists that climate change amplifies the effects of land management decisions, in California and elsewhere. ... These types of meteorological extremes are exactly what global climate models projected would happen, and we are seeing the effects on wildfires.”

And, in 2018, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources noted in its Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Plan that “compared to the western U.S., fire has not been a major disturbance in Pennsylvania, but that is likely to change. There is already evidence of an extended fire season, with fires now happening year-round, not just in spring and fall. The demand for state resources to deal with emergency management ... is expected to increase.”

So, while Lancaster County and south-central Pennsylvania might not be at risk for the types of horrific blazes we’ve witnessed recently in California, the Pacific Northwest and Australia, the risk here is increasing.

We must be vigilant. Careless acts have the increasing potential to cost lives, destroy property, leave people homeless and put firefighters at greater risk.

We should stop believing “it can’t happen here.”

Last weekend’s many blazes were another reminder that it certainly can.

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