Forget showers; April is brush fire season

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During his 39 years as a volunteer firefighter in Mount Pleasant Borough, Jerry Lucia has learned a lot about brush fires.

He has learned that if the fire is near a highway, it was probably started by a tossed cigarette. If the fire is in an open field, a shard of glass is likely the culprit, acting as a laser beam for the sun's heat.

"And then there's the good old boy who cleans up his lot for the spring" by burning debris, said Mr. Lucia, who serves as Mount Pleasant's fire chief and mayor. "Next thing you know, the wind starts up, and it takes some embers from the fire and 5 acres are burning."

For many of us, spring is a time of relief -- from cold weather, bare trees and perpetual darkness. But for firefighters, it's also a season of anxiety about brush fires, which are most common between mid-March and mid-May.

April has a reputation for bountiful rain, but grass and trees usually dry up during the month, creating fertile ground for brush fires, said Brian Vinski, a forest fire specialist supervisor at the state Department of Forestry.

With the snow gone and the sun out longer, vegetation is dry enough to be at risk of flaring up. High winds make it easier for fires to spread. And there are still a couple weeks before the leaves finish growing in to make fires less likely.

"If we have typical weather conditions, April is the worst month of the calendar year for brush fires," Mr. Vinski said.

Southwestern Pennsylvania has seen several brush fires in recent weeks, including one on March 31 that came within yards of the Parkway West near the interchange with Interstate 79 and Campbells Run Road.

This year, the Department of Forestry responded to about 25 brush fires in Allegheny County, Mr. Vinski said. That doesn't include fires small enough for local fire departments to handle.

The fires haven't caused significant injuries or property damage in Allegheny County, Mr. Vinski said. In Beaver County, on the other hand, a brush fire last Monday caused the death of Wayne Rose, 81, of Beaver Falls. It appeared that Mr. Rose was burning trash or paper when the wind carried embers to nearby woods, said Chief Dan McLean of South Beaver Township police. Mr. Gray's cause of death hasn't been determined, but it might have been from smoke inhalation while fighting the fire, Chief McLean said.

This season's rate of brush fires is about average for Allegheny County, but it might seem like a lot compared to the past few years, when there were fewer, Mr. Vinski said. The reasons for that are unclear, but high levels of rain might have played a part.

The most common cause of brush fires is the intentional burning of debris or garbage, said Terry Brady, deputy press secretary at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Arson is another frequent cause, he said.

Under state law, Pennsylvania residents can be held liable for the costs of fighting brush fires they created through negligence, Mr. Brady said. For large fires, the bill can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To prevent brush fires, he recommended clearing debris from the yard.

"If you have an evergreen that came down in a storm a couple weeks ago, it could be dry now," Mr. Brady said.

There's a strategy to fighting a brush fire. When Mr. Lucia responds to one, the first thing he thinks about is protecting structures and dangerous spots such as gas wells. His firefighters stand in front of those sites and try to halt the fire by spraying it with water from packs on their backs. They also use rakes and brooms to clear combustible debris from the fire's path and to pat the fire out.

"This is strenuous, strenuous work for the firefighters," he said. Usually, the younger guys fight the fire, while the older ones direct them.

When Mr. Lucia joined the Mount Pleasant Fire Department, there were about 15 brush fires a day during this time of year. But people are more careful now, he said, and he sees about 15 to 20 total brush fires in the spring season.

Pennsylvania's most recent large brush fire started in Bedford County on April 19. It has grown fast since then, consuming about 880 acres by Thursday afternoon. At one point, about 100 firefighters, volunteer and professional, were working together to stop it.

On Friday, the fire was contained, said Jim Smith, DCNR district forester. He was hoping rain would put it out for good.

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903.

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