Sunday, July 21, 2024

Spring Outdoor Burning Restrictions to Start in Virginia Feb. 15 

A forest in Highland County during a prescribed burn by the Virginia Department of Forestry in 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Statewide prohibitions on outdoor burning near woods or dry grass before 4 p.m. will go into effect Feb. 15 and run through April 30, as Virginia’s spring fire season begins.

The law forbids open-air fires — such as campfires or fires to burn debris — within 300 feet of “any woodland, brushland, or field containing dry grass or other inflammable material,” except between 4 p.m. and midnight.

According to guidelines posted by the Virginia Department of Forestry, the restrictions don’t apply to charcoal or gas-fired barbecue grills, although they do apply to open-air charcoal grills like those found in public parks. Additionally, the department notes, “an open-air fire MAY be acceptable if it meets the following criteria: it is completely contained within a ring of rocks, cinderblocks, metal ring, or a similar device and is covered by a ¼ inch or smaller metal screen.”

Even if the fire meets those criteria, it must be watched at all times, a 20-foot area around it must be cleared and the fire-watcher must have access to water, a rake and a shovel.

Also exempt from the law: commercial vineyard and orchard owners, who since 2017 have been allowed to set fires specifically to prevent frost damage to their vines and trees.

Violators can be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor and can face a fine of up to $500.

Virginia’s unusually active 2023 fall fire season saw the burning of thousands of acres in blazes such as the Quaker Run Fire in Madison County, the Matt’s Creek Fire in Bedford County, the Rocklick Fire in Buchanan County, the Tuggles Gap Fire in Patrick County and the Rachel’s Chapel Fire in Dickenson County.

“Last fall, Virginia experienced extreme fire activity that provided a stark reminder of the importance of safe burning practices,” said Virginia Department of Forestry Fire and Emergency Response Chief John Miller in a statement. “Simple safety measures are easy to follow and significantly reduce the likelihood of an escaped fire, the number one cause of wildfires.”

Agency data have found more than 60% of the state’s roughly 700 annual wildfires occur in the spring, encouraged by dead leaves and grass, rising temperatures and windy weather.

Virginia’s General Assembly passed the earliest version of the spring 4 p.m. burn ban in 1940, which focused on the burning of brush near woodlands. At that time, the prohibition was in place from March 1 to May 15 every year.

In 1945, State Forester George Dean told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that spring season fires resulting from brush burning had sharply decreased since passage of the law.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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