Grass fires are a spring concern
Ah, spring. Sunnier days and warmer temperatures. Everyone likes to see spring come after the winter. But firefighters also know spring can be a busy time of the year.
Farmington fire marshal John Powers said spring is the most dangerous time of the year for grass fires. Since the trees are just starting to bud, and the brush around the community is still dead from the winter, there's a burning restriction in place these days. So far, Powers said, this spring hasn't been as bad as last year's was, but he'd still like folks to be careful when it comes to lighting fires around the community.
Are there burning bans in place in Farmington right now?
It's not a ban, it's a restriction. We're not allowing outdoor tree fires or running grass fires, we're not allowing the farmers to burn prairie lands or that kind of thing. It's still okay for the backyard rec fires, as long as people are using caution. As long as the homeowners are exercising caution around the fire, because even the short grass can burn before it greens up.
There is, however, a variance process that we can issue permits for, for special prairie land projects that are managed by the DNR.
Why are burning restrictions necessary?
It's a public safety thing. The chance for grass fires is high with the change in season. Typically spring is high wind season also, so it can spread to unintended structures or grasslands that they may have not intended to burn. Last year, we had one spread to a barn. Somebody's fire spread to a barn. That's an example of the danger of having a open fire.
But things are starting to green up already. Isn't that good enough?
Actually, not. With the high winds and the low humidity and the taller grasses and the brush not having leaves and not greening up yet, it still poses a hazard for the grasses. Things like cattails are still dry, so it still poses a hazard until everything greens up. Yes, we're on the right track, but there's still a danger there.
How long do you think the restrictions stay in effect?
It depends on the weather. With the early spring this year, and the lack of moisture, it might still be a couple more weeks. It's hard to say until we get some rain and things start to green up a bit. We are better this week than we were last week, as far as fire conditions go, but we're still not all the way there yet.
When we have those days of rain, does that make any difference?
It helps tremendously. It provides moisture, humidity, and it decreases the wind speed on a typical spring day. It also encourages the plants to start to grow, thus turning green.
What happens if someone does some burning anyway?
We'll go out and extinguish it, and chances are pretty good we'll issue a citation, and there could possibly be another sanction by the courts. And they could be liable for the cost of extinguishing the fire.
I think you've mentioned before that grass fires pose a little different hazard for firefighters and how they have to attack them?
Grass fires, for us, have different dangers. There's a lot of strains and sprains because of the uneven terrain the firefighters are on. There's a possibility of wind change and burns that way. It's just a physically draining event to actually work. A house fire is more predictable to work than a grass fire. And the stress levels can be higher. Heart attacks and stuff like that, because of the extended work schedules that come with grass fires.
You mentioned permits before. That's just a DNR-issued thing right now?
They have to go to the DNR and get a variance. The restriction is issued by the DNR for several counties in the metro right now, so they have to go to the DNR and ask them for a variance. They have to turn in a burn plan, how they plan on keeping the fire under control. Then they'll come to us and we'll be the final word. We'll go out and look at the conditions and decide whether or not they can do it.
It's a delicate balancing act, because you have to do prairie restoration burns and that kind of thing while the grass is dead. It's a balancing act between safety and actually doing a project that's beneficial to the environment.
Most of those are overseen by the DNR, though, aren't they?
There are professional companies that do (controlled prairie restoration burns). The city's having three of those kinds of burns around ponds next week. It's all to restore the natural prairie around the ponds, to burn off all the weeds and stuff that is growing there so they can restore the natural grasses. It's a typical example of a useful fire at this time of the year.