- Department of Fire Services
Media Contact for Fire Officials Ask for Public’s Help Preventing Brush Fires
Jennifer Mieth, Public Information Officer
STOW — State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey said, “Early spring is often when firefighters in New England are busy fighting brush fires. As the season changes, the winds can be strong and unpredictable.” He added, “Please conduct open burning safely and watch the wind. Have a permit and to be ready to shut it down quickly if the weather changes.”
Drought Last Summer Led to Many Brush Fires
Early spring is usually a busy time for brush fires as people rush to conduct open burning before the season ends on May 1. It is also a windy time of the year as the weather pattern changes. The snow pack has melted, but the ground is only just starting to green up and there is plenty of dry vegetation and leaves from last year to serve as tinder. Low humidity combined with dry, hot and windy conditions make it perfect for brush fires to start and to get out of control, and hard for firefighters to contain. Last April was wet, but May started a 5-month period of unusually dry weather with below average rainfall. As a result, many brush and wildland fires kept firefighters busy across the state.
Brush Fires Tax Firefighting Resources
Brush fires are labor intensive and take a long time to bring under control. Multiple brush fires can severely tax a community’s firefighting resources. Prevention is the best approach.
- On March 9, 2020, at 12:47 p.m., the Bondsville Fire Department responded to a brush fire that started as an illegal burn. The homeowner did not pull a permit before starting to burn yard waste. The fire got out of control and burned 24 acres. Approximately 20 pieces of apparatus and 40-50 personnel responded to this fire. Two firefighters were injured at this fire.
- On March 9, 2020, at 1:22 p.m., the Sutton Fire Department was called to a brush fire in the woods. The fire burned for seven hours and consumed 35 acres.
- On June 21, 2020, at 7:30 a.m., the Southwick Fire Department responded to a 16-acre brush fire that lasted 11 hours. A day later on June 22, at 6:30 a.m. they also responded to a 22-acre fire that lasted four hours.
- On June 25, 2020, at 11:44 a.m., the Leverett Fire Department responded to a brush fire in and around Brushy Mountain. The fire burned for 34 days until it was finally extinguished, consuming 66 acres. Mutual aid was critical during the initial days of the fire.
2020 Ranks in the Top 10 for Brush Fires
In 2020, Massachusetts fire departments reported 5,846 natural vegetation fires, which caused two civilian injuries, 19 firefighter injuries, and an estimated dollar loss of $217,409; this is a 96% increase from the 2,978 incidents reported in 2019 (which was an unusually low number of brush fires). These types of fires are so weather-dependent and 2020 ranks in the top ten years for brush fires. The Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System (MFIRS) collects data on grass fires, brush fires, wildland fires, woods fires and other outside natural vegetation fires, which we refer to generally as “brush fires”.
Don’t Delay; Call for Help
If the fire should get out of control, call the fire department immediately. “Winds can fan the flames and fire can spread faster than a person can run,” said Ostroskey. “Use the utmost caution to prevent injury and damage to your own and your neighbor’s property,” he added.
Learn to Conduct Open Burning Safely
Open burning that has gotten out of control is the cause of many brush fires. Open burning season, in communities where allowed, ends on May 1. A permit is required from the local fire warden, usually the local fire chief. Burning can only take place when both air quality and fire conditions are acceptable. “Weather conditions change rapidly, so watch the wind and be prepared to extinguish your brush pile. A sudden wind change is how most open burning fires get out of control,” said Ostroskey. In 2020, fire departments responded to a huge increase (49%) in unauthorized burning and had to have owners shut them down, or extinguish those that got away from owners.
Open burning is prohibited at all times in these communities: Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Malden, Medford, New Bedford, Newton, Somerville, Springfield, Waltham, Watertown, West Springfield, Worcester.
Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) district fire wardens determine the fire danger rating daily, which assists local fire departments determine whether it is safe to issue burn permits. Weather and air quality can change rapidly, especially in the spring, and fire departments can rescind permits when that happens. Follow local procedures for using the permit on any given day.
How to Safely Burn Brush
Burn between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. with a permit from the fire warden (usually the local fire chief).
- Burn only when air quality is acceptable for burning. Local authorities will call the MassDEP Air Quality Hotline at (800) 882-1497 or visit MassAir Online to find out if it is.
- Burn only on your own property as close as possible to the source of material to be burned, no less than 75 feet away from all dwellings and away from utility lines.
- Have fire suppression tools handy; keep a fire extinguisher or charged garden hose, and a shovel and a rake close by.
- An adult must constantly monitor the fire. Leaving burning unattended is a reason to revoke burning permits.
- Use paper and kindling to start a fire and progressively add larger pieces of wood. Parts of a leftover Christmas tree may also be used.
- Never use gasoline, kerosene or any other flammable liquid to start a fire. The risk of injury in these cases is too high.
- Burn one small pile at a time and slowly add to it. This will help keep the fire from getting out of control.
- Burn the fire down to the coals, drown them with water, spread them out, and then drown them again. Completely extinguish the fire before leaving.