The heat has lingered through the fall a lot longer than anyone ever expected it to in Northwest Georgia. Record temperatures above 90 degrees have been recorded through the first days of October, with a week-ending high in the mid 90s for the day before a weekend promising better temperatures.
Forecasts called for rain at the start of the week, but just a short dousing is just enough get the soil wet again temporarily. The longer it remains hot and dry, the more likely it is that something small will start a large fire.
This is the concern of Georgia Forestry Commission officials across the state, where in September they recorded some 607 fires breaking out and causing damage. The only plus is that they have been contained in spaces as small as a tenth of an acre and upward of 18 acres of damage — in just the month of September. Some 13 of those fires were put out right here in Polk County.
As of the end of the first week of October, some five fires were already set. Four of those on Oct. 3 alone, though they weren’t major events like those Polk County have seen in the past. Think back to 2016 when clouds of smoke rose on the horizon all over the county as drought conditions persisted then.
Luck played a role in ensuring the numbers weren’t worse locally, but even still the entire state is more than tripled the number of fires expected annually at this time of year on a five year average.
Without a critical mass of rain — “A rain with a name” as Polk County Public Safety Director Randy Lacey likes to put it — the fire danger will only grow across the local area and the state at-large. That’s one reason why he and other local fire chiefs Felix White and Todd Queen in Cedartown and Rockmart decided back in September to extend the burn ban on a week-by-week basis, with the help of the County Commission Chair and County Manager.
Georgia Forestry Commission’s Seth Hawkins and Keith Moss are part of a group who are spreading the word about the dangers that fires pose at the moment, and are asking Polk County residents to observe the ban and hold off from burning for the moment.
“It’s going to take a significant amount of rain, over one or two inches over a period of days, and that will get us out of it for a little bit. We need more than one of those kind of rain events,” Moss said. “A quarter inch of rain with no humidity, it’s not going to last long. It will have a short term effect.”
They understand the nuisance that poses for some who are just trying to clear their yards of brush piles and leaves already on the ground, but conditions right now are ripe for a large wildfire to spread and cause real damage.
“We have the potential for really big fires like Treat Mountain in the south,” Moss said, eluding to a 2016 fire during the drought that destroyed hundreds of acres of forested land around the Polk-Haralson County lines. “The U.S. Forest Service got involved in a wilderness fire that destroyed several thousands of acres.”
Hawkins added that 2016 was the last time Polk and the surrounding region in Northwest Georgia saw fire dangers this elevated, and that “while they have been smaller acreages, but it indicates that we’re following the same kind of weather trajectory.”
Even though the forecast calls for a cooling off and some moisture to return, Polk County’s burn ban remains in effect. No permits are being provided by the Georgia Forestry Commission at this time.
The pair reiterated that those who want to open burn brush and leaves must have a permit to do so at all times. The ban covers four counties as of press time — Polk, Paudling, Gordon and Murray Counties.
Both also ask for people to take common sense into account when they consider burning anything inside or out at this time.
Something like a fire pit that is enclosed on a back patio, a campfire in an enclosed ring, a barrel used to burn leaf trash or charcoal and gas grills are still generally fine to use, but they ask that people be aware of the conditions as well as how they are putting out fires once they are done with enjoying them for the night.
“Another thing that starts a lot of roadside fires are cars parked in high grass. Mufflers and catalytic converter heats up. Also dragging chains along the roadside starts a lot of fires,” Hawkins said. “So we want people to make sure they have their chains lifted up, and aren’t parking in high grass. Definitely adhering to the burn ban, and no open burning right now.”
Campfires or fire pits need to be doused and cold to the touch, along with charcoal being disposed from a grill. They also said that used ashes from a charcoal grill need to be dumped well away from a wood line where they might act as an ignition source if they are still warm within an ash pile.
Propane canisters for gas grills also need to be kept well away from potential ignition sources where they might act to further fuel a fire if a fire were to spread out of control.
Especially people who live on a line between the woods and their backyards.
“The fire department only has a certain number of fire trucks,” Moss said. “So you’ve got to consider how you can protect yourself and your property as well. So if you do some things to defend your space from fire, like going in and removing some of the dry leaves around your house, and cut the hanging limbs down and keeping the gutters clean. Don’t let foliage get on top of your roof... keep the flammable materials away from your house.”
Even having hoses ready is a good call.
“You may have to defend your own house for a while,” Moss added.
The continued ban has Forestry Officials also seeking help from local residents who report those burning without permission if their information leads to an arrest and conviction on arson charges. Rewards posted are up to $10,000.
Fire investigator teams through the Georgia Forestry Commission will look into fires they believe were intentionally set, and they will lead to charges if they find individuals at fault.
Officials cited concerns over recent fires that are suspected to have been set intentionally despite the ban in Polk, Haralson and surrounding areas.
Arson is the third leading cause of fires in the state, with the debris burns unintentionally going out of control the top reason wild and brush fires spread across the state.