Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 7-13, and this year’s theme is “Look. Listen. Learn. Be aware. Fire can happen anywhere.” According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, we average about 1,000 wildfires a year, which burn 4,000 to 6,000 acres of forest and grassland within Ohio’s forest fire protection district, an area that roughly encompasses the southeastern third of the state. In a typical year, it is estimated that more than 15,000 wildfire and natural fuel fire occurrences are encountered statewide!
Ohio’s wildfire season is primarily March, April, May, October and November. Even though our wildfires rarely make national headlines, any wildfire is extremely dangerous to people, wildlife and firefighters. Wildfires, most of which are attributed to arson and careless burning of debris, negatively affect trees, landscaping, structures such as homes and businesses, and the environment.
Wildfires have a detrimental impact on water quality, harming fish and other aquatic organisms, drinking water supplies, and wastewater treatment systems:
• Debris and sediment including ash from the burned vegetation enter waterbodies through surface runoff. This runoff can result in fish kills by robbing the stream of oxygen and injuring the gills of fish. It also smothers the habitat upon which other aquatic organisms depend. Increased sediment and debris fill reservoirs and outlet pipes reducing the holding capacities of these structures.
• Burning vegetation introduces nitrate and other plant nutrients into the water. Ammonia can be toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms at high concentrations. Elevated nutrient concentrations can disrupt downstream public drinking water supplies resulting in drastically higher expenses for treatment. Heavy concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus can lead to harmful algal blooms.
• Runoff can bring heavy metals and hazardous contaminants from ash, soils, and geologic sources from within the burned area that can exceed state water quality criteria. Post-fire flash floods can contain extremely high levels of suspended sediment and while these levels dissipate eventually, it may take years.
• Fire retardant chemicals used to fight the fires enter the local waterbodies and can reach levels toxic to aquatic organisms as retardants are typically high in nitrogen and ammonia.
The magnitude of the effects of a wildfire depends on fire severity, fire intensity, and seasonal weather events. This week, the top three states with active fires are Washington with 14, Idaho with 13 and Montana with 10. The National Interagency Fire Center lists 71 active large fires on nearly 1 million acres in the United States. Wildfires take an economic toll by destroying homes and infrastructure. They require millions of dollars to mitigate the environmental degradation of our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. And they can obliterate valuable forests. In Ohio alone, the forest products industry contributes more than $22 billion to our economy!
Learn all you can about staying safe, Ohio’s fire laws, how to prevent wildfires, the use of prescribed burns as a management tool, and access a variety of Smokey Bear materials at forestry.ohiodnr.gov/firewise. A free home wildfire risk assessment form is available as well. The National Fire Protection Association offers a wide array of free resources at www.nfpa.org, just click on the public education tab. Remember, Smokey Bear says, “Only You can prevent wildfires.”
Discover more about the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District at www.delawareswcd.org. Follow us on Facebook to check out What is it Wednesday?
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.delawareswcd.org.