Firefighting crews around the county are being stretched thin trying to contain brush fires as the warm temperatures and low humidity continue, and many of the worst blazes have been started by people burning garbage, Indiana Fire Chief Chuck Kelly said.
“It’s just totally ridiculous that we have to run ragged, leave work. … I’ve got people here in Indiana who are students missing classes, because of some moron who says ‘I’m going to burn garbage,’” he said.
“We’re out here taking the chances (of) getting involved in an accident, or one of our guys getting hurt,” when the fires are easily avoidable.
Kelly has called for a burn ban for the municipalities he serves — Indiana and White Township — for the next few weeks or until the leaves come out. Both municipalities have burning ordinances that are being enforced. In White Township, it is always illegal to burn anything other than wood or wood products, such as paper, cardboard and leaves. In Indiana, any burning other than for cooking — such as using a grill — is only allowed with permission from the borough.
With a burn ban in place, Indiana Borough Police Chief William Sutton said permission will not be granted, making any fires illegal.
Jim Bloom, a forest fire specialist supervisor with the Bureau of Forestry in Ebensburg, said the spring fire season begins when the snow melts and continues until the leaves have fully come out on the trees, usually around May 8.
April rain can mitigate the danger, he said, but this year there hasn’t been much.
“We are very dry,” Bloom said. “The biggest thing I tell people, like I said before: Don’t burn on a windy day.”
But people have been burning. Kelly said a brush fire Tuesday afternoon on Route 110 that ultimately burnt a “couple acres” and kept several fire departments busy started in a pile of garbage. On Monday, a brush fire on Stonebraker Road was also started by burning garbage.
“White Township and the Borough of Indiana both have garbage service and recycling (service), but these people were burning garbage,” he said. “I’m hoping, if nothing else, these people just stop burning.”
There were five brush fires reported Sunday in Indiana County, two on Monday and two Tuesday.
One Tuesday was the fire on Route 110. Indiana Volunteer Fire Department Co. 1 and 2 and Creekside were dispatched around 1:30 p.m., and Clymer and Marion Center were dispatched with a tanker and brush truck at 1:48 p.m.
Plumville and Cherryhill Township both were put on standby.
Just as Marion Center firefighters were returning to their coverage area, a second brush fire was reported on Route 119 in Rayne Township at 3:05 p.m. Marion Center, Plumville, Clymer and Creekside were all dispatched, and Cherryhill Township went back on standby.
Blairsville also responded to a brush fire in Westmoreland County around 6:15 p.m.
Kelly said every fire department is short-staffed, and fighting fires that could have been avoided leaves everyone at risk.
“Now what happens when we have a structure fire?” he asked.
There’s also a financial reason to wait to burn. Bloom said that the Bureau of Forestry will look to recover any money they spend fighting brush fires. And those costs can add up quickly: If a bulldozer is required, the cost is $75 to $150 an hour. Airplanes and helicopters can cost up to $46 a minute.
“That can be pretty expensive. And we will bill the person responsible for the fire,” he said.
Even if it rains during the night, a warm sun can dry out fuel sources quickly on a day when humidity is low, he said.
Kelly said the burn ban will remain in effect for a few weeks, even if it rains. He said he will be sure to announce when the ban is lifted.
Bloom said the same.
“Wait ’til the leaves come out,” he said. “If we get a fire, we will move in (to put it out), and then I will go and see if I can find who set it.”