MOUNT VERNON — Wednesday’s large brush and woods fire on Columbus Road, as well as huge brush fires in Licking County and Morrow County Wednesday afternoon, are destructive examples of the dozens and dozens of fires caused by open burning.
County fire officials say they have not seen this many field fires in years. Knox County fire departments have battled close to 70 since Friday.
“This is the worst grass fire season we’ve had in many years,” Fredericktown Fire Chief Scott Mast said.
Firefighters believe many residents are unaware of the dangers of spreading brush and grass fires during the spring months when open burning is banned statewide from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“I truly believe that people don’t realize how fast that can happen, and how quckly they can spread,” said Capt. Andrew Weber, College Township Fire Department.
Weber said the rain Wednesday night should not give residents a false reassurance that it is now safe to burn. He said muddy fields can still burn quickly when fires are driven by spring winds.
Utica Fire Chief Rick Wray said his department was on the scene of the Columbus Road and the Licking County fires. His department has responded to eight fires since Sunday.
“Why these people are burning right now is beyond me,” Wray said.
The Eastern Knox County Joint Fire District has responded to 10 fires since Friday, according to Capt. Brian Durbin. Durbin said the windy, dry spring has led to open burns spreading faster than people anticipate.
“I believe that people are underestimating how dry the grass really is,” Mast said. “People do underestimate how fast the wind can carry an ember, and one ember can do it. Once it starts, it takes off.”
County fire departments follow the statewide burn ban regulations, which prohibit burning between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., March through May.
“The reason the law is from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. is the wind currents are typically stronger then,” Mast said.
Mount Vernon Fire Chief Shawn Christy said the city’s regulations are stricter than those in the county. Any open burning is illegal, any time of year, within the limits of Mount Vernon, as well as in all villages in the county. This ban extends a full mile outside the city corporation limits.
“When you combine these dry, windy conditions with what we are currently having, and people are not abiding by the law, you have this,” Christy said. “And we’re seeing it everywhere.”
Christy said one of his biggest concerns is how resources spent fighting grass and field fires are tied up when they may be needed elsewhere.
“We are beginning to see how the bad decisions by people in our community are beginning to overtax our first responders,” he said. “Because we have to commit ourselves to open burns, this could be leaving us short-staffed for people who are having emergencies such as heart attacks and auto accidents.”
Christy said people need to know and understand the regulations, and the consequences for violating the laws.
“These people can be fined by the Ohio EPA for any unauthorized burning,” he said. “If they have any questions on what they can or cannot do, please contact my office, and I will answer any questions as best as I can.”