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Fluvanna volunteer firefighters put out six grass fires in the past two weeks, said fire chief Mike Brent.
“Three of those were within three days,” Brent said. “All but one started the same way – a homeowner burning something outside. The other started when a homeowner put ashes from his fireplace outside.”
It may seem counterintuitive for fires to start so easily when we’ve had such a run of cold, wet weather but Brent said how wet or cold the ground is has little to do with how vulnerable dead grass is to a spark.
“The top of the ground is dry and when you have the combination of wind, sun and low humidity you have the makings of a fire,” Brent said.
That’s what happened Friday (Jan. 31) to a new homeowner on Central Plains Road.
He recently built a house on a knoll above a large expanse of grass. Earlier in winter, the homeowner cut the field and hauled most of the hay down away from the house into a ditch.
He wanted to wait until a rain or snow storm to burn the pile. When he awoke on Wednesday (Jan. 29) to the snow cover, he decided that was the time to burn the hay. It smoldered for a while. He watched it throughout the next couple days. When he saw no more smoke, he said he figured it was out.
It wasn’t.
Their neighbor, Hugh Nix, walked to his mailbox when he spotted the fire Friday.
“But he had a fire going earlier so I didn’t think anything about it,” Nix said.
When another neighbor called Nix asking if it was a controlled burn, Nix and his wife rode over in their four wheeler.
“We checked and decided it had spread. We didn’t think anyone was home because his Jeep wasn’t there,” Nix said. “So my wife called the fire department.”
Nix and his wife got a shovel and rake and tried to control it. When firefighters arrived, it didn’t take long before they got it under control. About a quarter of an acre was charred.
Brent said throughout the state a burn law goes into effect Feb. 15 making it illegal for someone to burn outside before 4 p.m.
It used to start March 1, but because of changes in weather, it now starts two weeks earlier. Brent said he believes it should start on Feb. 1.
The harsher the temperatures, the drier the vegetation making it easy for a fire to start and spread. Even if the ground is so wet you can’t walk without sinking, the vegetation on top of the ground is tinder just waiting for a spark to ignite.
“To make sure a fire is completely out, the forestry service tells people if they can put their hand into the ashes and not get burned, it’s out,” Brent said. “I tell people, ‘When you’re finished, wet down the embers.’”

Burning  law starts Feb, 15
The Commonwealth’s 4 p.m. Burning Law goes into effect Feb. 15th – the start of spring fire season in Virginia. The law prohibits burning before 4 p.m. each day until April 30th if the fire is in, or within 300 feet of, woodland, brushland or fields containing dry grass or other flammable materials.
“This law is one of the most effective tools we have to prevent wildfires,” said John Miller, director of resource protection at the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF). “Each late winter and early spring, downed trees, branches and leaves become ‘forest fuels’ that increase the danger of a forest fire. By adhering to the law and burning between 4 p.m. and midnight only, people are less likely to start a fire that threatens them, their property and the forests of Virginia.”
In addition to open burning, debris burning in metal barrels has been the source of wildland fires this year.
“If flames and sparks are flying out of the barrel, that increases the chance they’ll land in dry grass or leaves and start a wild fire,” said Paul Reier, VDOF technician in James City, Charles City and New Kent counties. “Be sure the barrel is secure and won’t tip over, causing the fire to spill out. Stay with the debris barrel while the fire is burning, and be sure to properly and safely dispose of the ashes.” Reier adds that metal barrels should be in good condition – not weak with rust or full of holes. A mesh wire screen, with openings of ¼” or less, should cover the top of the barrel.
– Contributed by Gregg O’Donnell, Virginia Department of Forestry