Weekend fires destroy over 1,000 acres

Published 9:10 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2005

By By Mary-Allison Lancaster-Managing editor
Strong winds and low humidity were the two main causes of weekend forest fires in Escambia County, with a total weekend destruction of more than 1,000 acres, primarily in the Boykin-Demascus area. Winds were reaching 20 to 25 mph.
Volunteer fire departments from Dixie, Brooklyn, Boykin-Demascus and Ridge Road, also helped out over the weekend in an attempt to protect the structures. On Friday, 15 structures were saved and none were lost. In Pollard, Friendship and McCall, volunteer fire departments helped save 15 structures, as well.
According to Gary Cole, who is the southwest regional forester for Alabama, as of Friday, four fires were reported and Saturday was the worst day for wildfires.
Beginning Friday in Escambia County, a total of four fires were investigated with a total loss of 355 acres. Cole said the biggest fire was in the Boykin-Demascus community where 306 acres were burned. The Appleton community lost 44 acres to fire, and the incident is currently under investigation.
On Saturday, there were two fires with a loss of 470 acres. The Boykin-Damascus area lost 400 acres and 70 acres were destroyed in Pollard. Sunday there was one fire reported in the Boykin-Damascus area where 385 acres were destroyed. More than 1,000 acres of land was destroyed due to wildfires, Cole said.
The leading causes of these fires were escapes from controlled burns, followed by woods arson, which is currently being investigated by Alabama Forestry Commission officers.
Controlled burns are often implemented to reduce hazardous fuels in the forest and are more controlled to prevent more damage in the event of a wilds fire, Cole said. Malicious fires are set this time of year to get the green up because the wildlife are attracted to the areas; therefore, it makes it easier for unsportsmanlike hunters to hunt illegally, he added.
Another factor in the wildfires is the amount of debris from the hurricane, which is abundant in the forests, he said.
Weather forecasts call for at least 90 percent chance of rain that is expected to stop around Thursday. No control burn or fire alerts have been implemented.
With the weather mostly sunny over the weekend, residents are getting ready for spring cleaning. Often, wildfires begin in the backyard of a residential home, and after all of the hurricane debris, everybody has a pile in their back yard, Cole said.
State law requires you obtain a permit before you begin to burn any woodland, grassland, field or new ground that is more than .25 acres in size or lies within 25 feet of natural fuels, such as woods or grass. To obtain a permit, call 1-800-672-3076.
Burning household trash and garbage is a violation of the public health law. If it escapes onto somebody else's property, it's illegal. According to Chandler, misdemeanor violations can result in up to six months of jail or up to a $1,000 fine.
Cannon said at least three to five forest fires have been found to be debris burning. According to Chandler, one subject on Elmer Road was charged and arrested over the weekend, and two more could be charged because they admitted they were burning.
In February, AFC pilot Charley Squires and Cole were flying a patrol mission in north Mobile County when they detected several smoke columns from fires contained in one area.
According to a news release, as they flew down the road the size of the fires became smaller, indicating they had been recently set. As they were approaching, they witnessed a Chevrolet pickup pulling away from the scene.
The two men called the Citronelle Police Department and two men were apprehended. Lance Felton Rivers, 23, and Joseph Ray Chestang, 18, both of Mt. Vernon, turned themselves in and were charged in regard to approximately 22 fires that burned approximately 272 acres of land in north Mobile County.
The two men were charged with felony arson, which is a Class C Felony and carries a penalty of 1 to 10 years in prison, and up to a $5,000 fine.
The AFC offers a reward up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone committing the crime of timberland arson in Alabama. The reward is offered by the Alabama Forestry Association and Alabama Loggers Council.
To remain anonymous, call the hotline at 1-800-222-2927.
Cannon and Chandler added that if you must burn, purchase an inexpensive tarp and place it over the piles of debris.