(A controlled burn at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Photo courtesy of Mike Hollingshead of Extreme Instability.)
These dry, windy conditions are making it easy for wildfires to spurt up and rage across Maryland. The state’s DNR Forest Service has encountered 13 different hot spots this week alone, with two of the larger fires consuming some 3,500 acres of marshland in Dorchester County.
The biggest of the two, which forestry folk are calling the Irish Creek fire, has charred almost 3,000 acres of marshland in the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area on the Eastern Shore. “Three thousand acres at one time is a pretty big fire, and its size is a direct correlation to the weather conditions on Monday,” with high winds and low moisture, says state fire supervisor Monte Mitchell.
Fires in the marsh aren’t unusual for this time of year. But their origins are. There hasn’t been any lightning or anything else that would create a spark this week. While it’s still unknown how these particular fires began, the majority (above 98 percent) of forest fires in Maryland are caused by people, says Mitchell. The usual suspects, in decreasing order of frequency, are outdoor debris burning, arson, careless children and mechanical equipment.
The forest agency is prepared to handle these kinds of fires; its battalion of suppression vehicles includes wildland fire engines, fire dozers to cut fire breaks in the woods and an amphibious Marsh Master. On average, the state sees 660 wildfires each year covering 3,600 acres of land.
A lot of the time, because of the inaccessibility of the marshland, firefighters will simply venture out by boat to keep an eye on the flames until they die out.
Anyone out fishing will want to stay far away from any smoke. According to the forestry agency:
Fires also represent the greatest fear for human safety, according to Glenn Carowan, Refuge Manager of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
“We have people out on the marsh almost on a daily basis. I hate to think about what might happen if someone were to set fire to a piece of marsh when one of our folks was out there conducting some study,” said Carowan. “These fires move through the marsh quicker than a person can run, especially with hip boots and cold weather gear on.”