GFC: Wildfire danger escalating

COVINGTON -- Dry conditions throughout the state mean the risk of wildfires is increased, warns the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Newton and Rockdale residents are urged to keep an eye out for wildfires and call 911 if they spot one, as well as to avoid activities that can increase the chance for a fire to occur.

"It's extremely dry right now. Of course, we're in a burn ban so there shouldn't be anybody burning. But come Oct. 1, we'll start issuing permits. Everyone will have to be extremely careful," said Mike Sapp, chief ranger for the GFC's DeKalb-Henry-Newton-Rockdale unit. Fifty-four Georgia counties, including Newton and Rockdale, have been restricted from outdoor burning since May. The ban is in effect until Oct. 1.

Drought conditions in Georgia have been reclassified from moderate to severe and more than two-thirds of the state is now in severe to extreme drought, according to David Stooksbury, state climatologist for the University of Georgia.

Hurricane Irene did little to help the situation, bringing dry air but no rain.

"The hurricane sucked the moisture out of the air and brought down a lot of dry air It made it a lot worse. We've had a lot of wind here lately, too, so the air and the wind is really causing a lot of problems," Sapp said.

A small wildfire occurred Sunday near Covington Municipal Airport on property owned by the city of Covington. According to Sapp, a pile of mulch spontaneously combusted, burning about half an acre.

"When it's extremely dry, the rotting process actually causes (mulch) to catch on fire," he said.

Sapp urged anyone who sees smoke of any kind to call 911. Citizens should not attempt to put out a fire themselves but should wait for emergency personnel to arrive, he said.

Sapp said citizens should refrain from throwing cigarettes out the windows of their vehicles, as they can easily cause a fire in these dry conditions. Motorists should also be careful to make sure chains or other objects are not hanging down from their vehicles and dragging the roadway, which can cause sparks and ignite a fire in nearby grassy areas, he said. A dragging chain started a fire earlier this year that burned more than 20 acres in Rockdale and DeKalb and resulted in the closing of I-20 for several hours, he said.

"Conditions are ripe for fires to get out of control and move very quickly," said Alan Dozier, chief of protection for GFC. "The smallest spark -- from a cigarette, a fire pit or grill, a flat tire's rim on the highway, even an overheated piece of lawn equipment -- they're all capable of starting a dangerous blaze."

In August, GFC reported 455 fires, a 42 percent increase over the state's five-year monthly average. Since January, 448,000 acres have burned in Georgia, including 306,000 acres inside the Okefenokee Swamp and 142,000 acres on private land, more than three times Georgia's five year average, according to the GFC. It is the second worst fire season in the state's history, exceeded only by 2007's record 499,000 acres.