Region battling rash of brush fires

Warnings from local fire officials have stacked up in recent days, all noting the same thing: The Baltimore region is ready to burn.

In fact, part of it already is.

In the last few days, fires have roared through parts of several counties, forcing residents to be evacuated from their homes and crews to be posted at sites overnight to guard against doused fires bursting back into flame. On Monday, brush fires were extinguished in Carroll and Arundel counties.

Few injuries and little damage have been reported, but acres of brush have burned, and teams of firefighters have crisscrossed the region under mutual aid agreements between jurisdictions, helping each other battle the flames.

The fires are all being blamed on the dry and windy weather of late, which has made the region susceptible to fires that ignite easily and spread quickly, officials said.

Regional rainfall is about 4 inches below average and winds have been high, at times around 30 mph.

"In a nutshell, when you have extremely low humidity coupled with winds, you have conditions that are ripe for the spread of fire," said Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County spokeswoman and one of the local officials who sent out a warning.

The National Weather Service, which has issued "red-flag" fire warnings for the region in past days because of the weather conditions, is calling for rain later this week, according to Steve Goldstein, a meteorologist with the service in Sterling, Va.

But concerns remain that brush around the region is so dry that it is now considered "10-hour fuel," Goldstein said — material that has the potential to fuel fires until it gets a solid 10 hours of rain.

Fires can spread even in damp grass, so short spurts of rain don't help much, Goldstein said.

The smallest spark can start a fire in these conditions, which turn brush, woods and grasses into tinder, Armacost said.

"For example, if you're a smoker and you have a tendency to flick your cigarette butts away, that can be a very dangerous thing to do in conditions like this, because that little spark can start a fire," Armacost said.

According to Capt. James Rostek of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, "It's difficult to contain any type of outdoor fire in these conditions."

That's part of the reason why the counties surrounding Baltimore are sharing resources and tackling flames together, officials said.

For example, a 5-acre fire off Prettyboy Dam Road in Baltimore County on Saturday brought firefighters and equipment from Carroll County and York County, Pa., Armacost said.

The agreements also allow for neighboring counties to cover general fire calls when the home county's attention is tied up with a big brush or woods fire, Armacost said.

Area counties, including Baltimore and Howard, have banned recreational burning until the conditions change.

Fires have been burning in other parts of the country as well, including along the East Coast.

Goldstein said that he expected another "red-flag warning" would be issued Tuesday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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