DEC, on heels of wildfire, encourages fire caution

One of many firefighters works to control the wildfire on the Altona Flat Rock that, by Tuesday, had consumed 531 acres since it started last Thursday. As of Tuesday, crews had surrounded the fire and had it 75 percent contained. (Photo provided — New York State Incident Management Team)

SARANAC LAKE — According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the entire state of New York is under a moderate fire danger rating. But with a more than 500-acre fire burning in Altona and almost weekly reports of forest rangers responding to wildfires around the state, the DEC is asking residents to be careful when burning brush.

The department put out a press release this week with advice for campers and homeowners on how to avoid inadvertently setting a wildfire. A DEC spokesman said the moderate rating is generalized and that some areas could have a higher chance of conflagrating.

“The majority of the forest cover and wildland fuel throughout New York is hardwood (deciduous) leaf litter,” DEC Region 5 spokesman David Winchell wrote in an email. “Fire Danger Rating warnings are a generalized message based on this fuel type. Obviously there are localized areas with special fuel types and condition.

“The jack pine/blueberry vegetation community is the primary fuel type in the 550-acre Flat Rock Fire in Clinton County. Other fuel types in which fires can start more easily and spread faster include softwood (conifer) logging slash, pitch pine groves, and phragmites wetlands.”

Winchell explained that the fire danger rating is based on daily weather observations, with factors such as temperature, humidity and precipitation each playing a role.

“Staff from the DEC Division of Forest Protection (forest rangers) review information from remote automated weather stations (there is one in Schuyler Falls) daily,” he said. “The previous day’s rainfall, current weather, and the next day’s forecast from the National Weather Service forecast determine the Fire Danger Rating for each of our 10 state Fire Danger Rating Areas.”

The National Weather Service said this week that since June 1, the Saranac Lake area has gotten about an inch-and-a-half less rain than normal, and the year-to-date precipitation is also considerably lower than normal.

But Winchell said the moderate rating is common for this time of year.

“Although the North Country and much of New York has been dry, the daily weather factors have moderated potential wildfire danger,” he said. “The lack of other significant wildfires at this time tends to confirm a Moderate Fire Danger Rating index. Moderate Fire Danger is the common rating for summer in New York. High Fire Danger is occasionally issued in the spring and very rarely in the summer. Very High Danger is extremely rare and it will take some research to determine the last time an Extreme Fire Danger was issued for New York.”

According to the National Fire Danger Rating System — which the DEC follows — a moderate rating means fires can start accidentally but are generally easy to control.

“Fires can start from most accidental causes but, with the exception of lightning fires in some areas, the number of starts is generally low,” the rating system says of the moderate designation. “The average fire is of moderate intensity, although heavy concentrations of fuel, especially draped fuel, may burn hot. Fires are not likely to become serious and control is relatively easy.”

The fire in Altona is now 100 percent contained, and a spokesman for the State Incident Management Team said this week’s rain and cooler weather helped get it under control.

“We’ve made a lot of progress the last few days … so it’s been really good,” Steve Hauck said Wednesday afternoon. “[It was] 547 acres.

“I think it was weather, and due to the temperatures dropping and the rain, they were able to really aggressively sort of attack it and get it under control.”

Hauck said that once the bulk of the firefighters and support leave, the fire will fall under the jurisdiction of the forest rangers, who will patrol the area and ensure the fire doesn’t jump its containment line.

A wildfire is nearly impossible to extinguish in the traditional ways. The idea behind containment is to keep the fire from spreading while essentially allowing it to burn itself out.

The last bad year for wildfires in New York was in 2002, when rangers responded to 324 fires that burned more than 2,000 acres, according to DEC statistics on the history of wildfires.

“In historical contrast,” the DEC says, “the similarly dry weather of 1903 spawned over 643 fires which burned 464,000 acres in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks alone.”

The DEC recommends that campers use established fire rings and clear the area around the ring of twigs, leaves and branches. Campers should also ensure the fire is completely out before leaving the area by dousing it with water.

Homeowners and those burning brush should avoid burning on windy days and should burn early in the morning when humidity is high. Burners should also keep on hand a garden hose, shovel or other means to extinguish the fire.

While the state’s annual burn ban was lifted in mid-May, there are burning regulations in effect year-round in most of the state. For more information, go to www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/58519.html.

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