As DC region enters drought, brush fires on rise

WASHINGTON — Moderate drought conditions across the D.C. region have combined with abnormally warm temperatures to turn brushy areas tinder-dry, and that’s led to an uptick of brush fires.

Researchers at the U.S. Drought Monitor last week placed Northern Virginia and all of suburban Maryland and the District under moderate drought status. The Drought Monitor is a collaboration among the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The National Weather Service in Sterling, Virginia, said that winter precipitation is below normal. Many parts of the region have been coping with precipitation deficits of more than two inches since Dec. 1, with rainfall chances through the end of the week looking scant.

Fire season in the D.C. area doesn’t start until April, but dozens of brush fires have been reported since last weekend. Mark Brady, of the Prince George’s County Fire Department, said firefighters have responded to 10 brush fires since Monday, twice the usual number for this time of year. One fire, along Lanham Severn Road in Glenn Dale, required about 50 firefighters to contain. No injuries were reported and no structures were damaged.

Another brush fire ignited near the Bowie Public Works Facility off Route 450; yet another happened in Laurel, along Muirkirk Road between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Hermosa Drive.

Brady said that a single engine company can easily contain a normal brush fire, but nearly all of Monday’s blazes required additional units. More than 10 engine companies battled flames at the Glenn Dale fire for nearly five hours before the final hot spots were put out.

A large brush and trash fire in the District broke out along Mississippi Avenue near 13th Street in Southeast around midday Monday. The plume of smoke could be seen from as far away as Georgetown and parts of Arlington.

“In addition to the brush, apparently that area was a dumping ground for tires,” said Vito Maggiolo, with D.C. Fire. Maggiolo said calls for brush fires have increased in recent days.

“In general there’s been a slight uptick in outdoor fires — brush, trash. We’ve had several days of very dry, low-humidity [weather] and winds. If you’re discarding cigarettes, just throwing them out the window, that can cause something to ignite where it normally would not. Take a little more care with smoking materials,” Maggiolo said.

Pete Piringer, with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, said there were about 12 brush fires on Sunday. It took firefighters from Montgomery and Frederick counties over five hours to contain a brush fire near Sugarloaf Mountain early Monday.

Temperatures throughout the region have been more than 15 degrees above average since late last week.

The National Weather Service said that, so far, this February ranks as the second-warmest on record for Washington D.C. The winter is on track to rank among the five warmest winters ever.

The Weather Service says fuel moisture is low, given the dry conditions, but winds are expected to remain light, which should keep additional brush fires from spreading rapidly. Relative humidity is also expected to increase over the next several days.


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