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Wildfire Watch: Catskills Blaze 'Fully Contained'

The early taste of summer brought a spate of wildfires to our area. 

First it was northern Berkshire County, then Ulster and Sullivan. Now, fast-moving brush fires have spread throughout the Catskills over the last several days. The Lanesville fire, one of largest of several to impact the area, was declared around noon Sunday "fully contained."

Alex Marra is with Hudson Valley Weather:   “The fire up by Hunter Mountain is still burning, but they’re saying it’s contained. Over 2,000 acres  on the Shawangunk Ridge about a week and a half ago, and these conditions are going to persist as long as this rain deficit continues.”

Randy Ormerod is deputy director of Greene County Emergency Services. He’s been monitoring the Lanseville fire.   “It was about 110 acres in size and has been turned over to DEC forestry department and forest rangers. They’re going around making sure that everything is put out by going into the fire zone itself and doing fire surpression. But I believe they actually have a firebreak around the entire location.”

The DEC did not return calls for comment Monday morning.

A burn ban is in place in the Catskill Forest Preserve on ALL fires, including campfires, through midweek.

Marra says we have to hold out for rain.   “I haven’t heard anything yet but wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these burn bans extended. As you know, May 15th is right around the corner and there’s a lot of people itchin’ to start their fire pits in their back yard or burn their dead brush, but  with the dry weather persisiting that still could be quite a hazard.  I know that the Catskill Park has obviously put its own ban in effect. They’ve closed a couple of hiking trails and campfires are not permitted anywhere within the Catskill Park at this point, so we’re still waiting to hear if they’re going to extend it statewide, but obviously my advice would be until we get a good soaking of rain, the fire danger’s gonna persist as being quite high for the unforeseeable future.”

Ormerod says Greene County has limited resources for monitoring fire danger.    “Unfortunately, we’re a small department, so our monitoring is with the assistance of volunteers as well as law enforcement; they’re going around checking certain areas. We’re very much cautious to make sure that any open burns are extiniguished.”

Marra adds people need to pay more attention to “Red Flag” and other weather warnings.   “A ‘fire weather watch’ means that conditions are going to become favorable for fires to become uncontrollable. A ‘red flag warning’ basically means that conditions ARE favorable, like ‘do not do it.’   This, combined with a statewide burn ban. When you see some of these forest fire, they say the one in the Shawangunk was started by a resident burning brush, and I believe the one in Hunter they’re now saying was caused by somebody who was doing tree work. The tree hit a power line, the power line arced, sparked the ground and caused that forest fire.  I’ve driven by a couple of houses myself and seen people with fire pits going on in their backyard. I think its either a lack of public understanding of the severity of it, and then some people just don’t pay attention.  We’ve seen at Hudson Valley Weather the amount of traffic you get from people paying attention to the weather drops off drastically as you leave winter, enter spring. “

The Department of Environmental Conservation has reported nearly 30 fires in the past several days.

A Red Flag Warning also known as a Fire Weather Warning is a forecast warning issued by the National Weather Service to inform area firefighting and land management agencies that conditions are ideal for  fire combustion. After drought conditions, when humidity is very low, and especially when high or erratic winds which may include lightning are a factor, the Red Flag Warning becomes a critical statement for firefighting agencies. These agencies often alter their staffing and equipment resources dramatically to accommodate the forecast risk. To the public, a Red Flag Warning means high fire danger with increased probability of a quickly spreading vegetation fire in the area within 24 hours.

The weather criteria for fire weather watches and red flag warnings vary with each Weather Service Office’s warning area based on the local vegetation type, topography  and distance from major water sources. They usually include the daily vegetation moisture content calculations, expected afternoon high temperature, afternoon minimum relative humidity and daytime wind speed.

Outdoor burning bans may also be proclaimed by local law and fire agencies based on Red Flag Warnings.

A separate but less imminent forecast may include a "Fire Weather Watch, " which is issued to alert fire and land management agencies to the possibility that Red Flag conditions may exist beyond the first forecast period (12 hours). The watch is issued generally 12 to 48 hours in advance of the expected conditions, but can be issued up to 72 hours in advance if the NWS agency is reasonably confident. The term “Fire Weather Watch” is headlined in the routine forecast and issued as a product. That watch then remains in effect until it expires, is canceled, or upgraded to a Red Flag Warning.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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