Consider safety before starting fire

Consider safety before starting fire Dry weather since last summer has given way to the threat of fires statewide.

Bill Campbell, Extension farm safety specialist at South Dakota State University, said people should contemplate whether it is favorable to burn far before they light a fire.

"People should really step back and evaluate if they absolutely need to get something burned now. They need to think about what may potentially happen, and how they will handle it," said Campbell.

"Look around for a mile or two and say, 'What level of damage may I cause if I get this going?' Look at the amount of dry material in ditches, the ground next to where you may burn, and see if there is a natural fire stop," he added.

However, if conditions are favorable and it is safe to burn, people should make sure they have a fairly wide fire stop. This area should have no vegetation for a good distance around the area to be burnt. This may not stop all ash and sparks from spreading, but it will help prevent ground flash.

People need to be very careful about allowing fires to get too big. They need to watch for sparks and ash being lifted into the wind. These can jump fire stops and take off, leaving a small controlled burn to become a big uncontrolled burn.

Finally in the preparation process, Campbell said people should notify their local fire department before burning.

"By notifying your fire department you are letting them know of your intentions and they can also tell you if conditions are unfavorable," said Campbell.

Campbell said he has heard several scenarios, and warns to be careful in all circumstances. "I've had folks tell me they've seen a spark jump out of an exhaust pipe, ignite a ditch and two or three acres of a corn field."

Being in a rush leads to carelessness and can easily cause fires to get out of hand because of the dryness, warned Campbell.

The intermittent rain or snow gives somewhat of a false sense of security and reprieve, because of the limited vegetation actively pulling moisture up out of the soil during this time of the year. Campbell said the tender dry grass and brush don't take long to re-dry and can become just as big of a problem as before rain.

"I think that's probably what has gotten us into the problem the last couple of weeks. Everyone saw that we've gotten some rain, so they figure it is a good time to burn a pile or a ditch. They don't realize the material is still just as dry, even though the soil beneath it may have a little more moisture," said Campbell.

While the control burn method is best, Campbell said this term could be misleading. "Control burn is kind of a mixed message, especially this time of year when we have the variability in wind speed and direction. This is enough to really cause people a serious problem.

"A fire may be lit when the prevailing wind is favorable and in a half hour or so the wind might change or get to swirling. People need to pay very close attention to wind direction and wind speed."

Campbell said people need to watch controlled burns, especially after the initial fire. "In controlled burns, the wind can re-ignite a small area and can turn it into a large-scale problem. People need to douse the area down until there are no signs of heat or smoke. It is a bad practice to leave the fire site, even if you think it is completely out."

Campbell also cautions the use of accelerants. Using gas, diesel fuel or LP torches can allow a fire to quickly get out of hand.

"When those are involved, it can become that much more difficult to get yourself back in control over what the fire is doing," said Campbell.

Campbell said if the wind is blowing too hard and it is difficult to start a fire, take the fact that the wind is blowing too hard as a warning sign. This occurrence should indicate that lighting a fire may be a bad idea to begin with.

Consider the possibility of an up-coming rain, and think about starting the fire after or shortly before the precipitation comes.

"It's difficult to predict before rain, but as soon as it is dry enough to get something lit after a rain, you have an advantage leading to more control. But if you're trying to work in a rainstorm, you may still have unpredictable winds. Bottom line, people should be very careful about whether or not they absolutely need to burn right now," said Campbell.

If spring progresses dry, more fuel will be available for a problem, but Campbell said there should be an improvement as things continue to green up.

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