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Maryland Wildfires
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By Vice President / Lieutenant Scot Best
April 16, 2024

Every year, wildfires burn across the United States, and a growing number of people are living where wildfires are a real risk. In 2023, more than 55,500 fires burned over 2.6 million acres across the U.S. More than 4,318 structures were destroyed, including 3,060 residences, 1,228 minor structures, and 51 commercial structures.

According to the Maryland Department of natural Resources, wildfires are a common occurrence in Maryland. In an average year, the Maryland Forest Service responds to an average of 325 wildfires that burn more than 3,200 acres of forest, brush, and grasses. Fire departments respond to over 5,000 wildfire incidents per year.

While some wildfires in Maryland can burn hundreds or even thousands of acres, most are smaller in size, burning less than 10 acres. Even these smaller wildfires can threaten lives, homes, other structures, and our natural resources. Each year hundreds of homes and structures are threatened, and dozens are damaged or destroyed by wildfires.

Wildfires occur in every month in Maryland, but peak in the spring and fall. During these seasons, the leaves are off the deciduous trees, allowing sunlight and wind to reach the forest floor and dry the forest fuels. The relative humidity of the air is also drier and, combined with a breeze, creates the conditions for wildfires to spread rapidly.

The only natural cause of wildfires is lightning, and this accounts for only 4% of the wildfire ignitions in Maryland. The remaining 96% of wildfires are caused by humans. Maryland’s leading cause of wildfires is improper debris or outdoor burning that ignites an average of 28% of the fires each year. Arson, the second leading cause, accounts for around 23% of ignitions. Other causes include: equipment use, children playing with fire, smoking, campfires, railroads, and other miscellaneous ignitions from sources such as downed power lines, discarded ashes, and fireworks.

A wildfire is an even greater challenge when it threatens homes and other structures. The zone where homes are built in or near the forest is called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). The number of homes built in the WUI in Maryland has increased dramatically in recent years.

Since 97% of wildfires are caused by people, wildfire ignitions are also more common in these WUI zones. Considering all factors, wildfires can be a significant threat in Maryland. Homes and other structures intermixed with wildland fuels are at risk, and WUI residents need to take actions to protect themselves and their property.

Most wildfires in Maryland are surface fires, which burn fallen leaves, twigs, and debris on the ground. Under this fallen debris is often a layer of partially decomposed leaves and humus, called “duff.” During dry periods, fires can burn underground in this duff layer, and be very difficult to extinguish. These duff fires can burn for weeks, or even months, and cause smoke issues.

The intensity of wildfires increases greatly in areas of dense fine fuels, such as grasses, or dense resinous fuels, such as mountain laurel shrubs or evergreen trees. In these areas, wildfires can spread rapidly and burn with amazing intensity. Maryland rarely experiences active crown fires - wildfires that burn in the tree canopy. However, crown fires can occur in dense stands of evergreen trees during times of very dry and windy weather.

Before a wildfire threatens your area:

In and around your home:
• Clear leaves and other debris from gutters, eaves, porches and decks. This prevents embers from igniting your home.
• Remove dead vegetation and other items from under your deck or porch, and within 10 feet of the house.
• Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
• Remove flammable materials (firewood stacks, propane tanks) within 30 feet of your home’s foundation and outbuildings, including garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don’t let it touch your house, deck or porch.
• Wildfire can spread to tree tops. Prune trees so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground.
• Keep your lawn hydrated and maintained. If it is brown, cut it down to reduce fire intensity. Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire.
• Don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Dispose of these items quickly to reduce fuel for fire.
• Inspect shingles or roof tiles. Replace or repair those that are loose or missing to prevent ember penetration.
• Cover exterior attic vents with metal wire mesh no larger than 1/8 inch to prevent sparks from entering the home.
• Enclose under-eave and soffit vents or screens with metal mesh to prevent ember entry.

Creating an emergency plan:
• Assemble an emergency supply kit and place it in a safe spot. Remember to include important documents, medications and personal identification.
• Develop an emergency evacuation plan and practice it with everyone in your home.
• Plan two ways out of your neighborhood and designate a meeting place.

In your community:
• Contact your local planning/zoning office to find out if your home is in a high wildfire risk area, and if there are specific local or county ordinances you should be following.
• If you are part of a homeowner association, work with them to identify regulations that incorporate proven preparedness landscaping, home design and building material use.
• Talk to your local fire department about how to prepare, when to evacuate, and the response you and your neighbors can expect in the event of a wildfire.
• Learn about wildfire risk reduction efforts, including how land management agencies use prescribed fire to manage local landscapes.

During the time a wildfire is in your area:
• Stay aware of the latest news and updates from your local media and fire department. Get your family, home and pets prepared to evacuate.
• Place your emergency supply kit and other valuables in your vehicle.
• Move patio or deck furniture, cushions, door mats and potted plants in wooden containers either indoors or as far away from the home, shed and garage as possible.
• Close and protect your home’s openings, including attic and basement doors and vents, windows, garage doors and pet doors to prevent embers from penetrating your home.
• Connect garden hoses and fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs, or other large containers with water. Firefighters have been known to use the hoses to put out fires on rooftops.
• Leave as early as possible, before you’re told to evacuate. Do not linger once evacuation orders have been given. Promptly leaving your home and neighborhood clears roads for firefighters to get equipment in place to fight the fire, and helps ensure residents’ safety.

After a wildfire has been contained:
• Continue to listen to news updates for information about the fire. Return home only when authorities say it is safe.

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Ridge Volunteer Fire Department, Inc.
13820 Point Lookout Road
P.O. Box 520
Ridge, MD 20680
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