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NEWS | March 2, 2011

Preventing grass fires

By Rick Dangerfield Joint Base Charleston - Weapons Station safety manager

According to the South Carolina Forestry Commission, any forest fire, brush fire, grass fire or any other outdoor fire not controlled and supervised is called a wildfire. These fires cause damage to the forest resource as well as wildlife habitat, water quality and air quality.

Of increasing concern is the threat wildfires pose to homes and lives. In South Carolina, wildfires burn 20 to 30 homes every year and hundreds more are threatened each fire season. A recent grass fire on Joint Base Charleston -  Weapons Station threatened a duplex residence on three sides of the structure.

The South Carolina Forestry Commission responds to approximately 3,000 fires per year. This does not include all the wildfires municipal and volunteer fire departments respond to or those extinguished by civilians. South Carolina has one of the highest rates for wildfires in the nation when given the size and population of our state.

Some interesting statistics about these fires are that only about 2 percent are attributed to lightning, 1 to 3 percent are caused by campfires, 3 to 4 percent are blamed on careless smoking, 35 to 45 percent are caused by debris burning, 5 percent originate from faulty equipment, 1 to 2 percent are caused by railroad operations and the activities of children cause 3 to 5 percent of wildfires. Most of the fires caused by children are the result of the unsupervised use of fireworks, matches and lighters.

Another 25 to 30 percent of these wildfires were set to burn someone else's property without the owner's consent. State law recognizes two types of incendiary fire: willful and malicious, and intentional fires. Revenge, malicious mischief and thrill-seeking are common motives.

Four to 6 percent of fires are categorized as miscellaneous. These include such things as irresponsible use of fireworks by adults, structure fires which ignite nearby woods and unattended warming fires.

According to the S.C. Forestry Commission, South Carolina is in for a costly and active fire season which began in mid-December and runs through early April. Since December, the Joint Base Charleston Fire Department has responded to five grass fires.

Everyone needs to do their part in reducing fire loss from wildfires by practicing good risk management and maintaining situational awareness:

Don't throw cigarette butts on the ground or out of a vehicle. Dispose of them properly and make sure they are completely extinguished.

Do not burn trash, leaves or brush outdoors. During certain times of the year bans are implemented in many areas.

Keep a 30-foot "safety zone" surrounding your home clear of brush and cedar, especially for those living in woodland areas. Grass should be cut short in this area as well.

Don't park cars, trucks or recreational vehicles on dry grass or shrubs. Exhaust systems on vehicles can reach a temperature of more than 1000 degrees; it only takes about 500 degrees to start a brush fire in the summer.

Use an approved spark arrester on all internal combustion engine-powered equipment. This special muffler helps ensure that sparks generated by off-road vehicles, chainsaws and other equipment don't start wildfires. Check and replace spark arresters periodically.

Parents should emphasize to their children the dangers of playing with fire. Many grass fires are started by children who have no idea how quickly flames can grow and spread.

When barbequing outdoors, maintain a 10-foot area free of brush and shrubbery around grills and propane tanks. Non-flammable screens should be placed over the grill (with mesh no coarser than 1/4 inch thick). Never leave a grill unattended. After use, place grill ashes in a metal bucket and soak in water.

Keep a shovel, bucket of water, fire extinguisher or other fire suppression tools on hand when using any kind of open flame outdoors.

To report an emergency:
Dial 911, remain calm and state the nature of the emergency and exact location (including the fact that you are on Joint Base Charleston Air Base or Weapons Station, as the case may be) and stay on the line until the dispatcher gathers all the necessary information.