EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 4, 2013

Fire officials on high alert

By Doug Ireland

---- — High winds, lots of downed trees and extremely dry conditions have sparked concern at area fire departments.

The beginning of brush fire season in the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire has fueled worries that a single cigarette or any small flame could scorch acres of land and possibly spread to buildings.

It’s only early April and even though there’s still a little snow in some areas, brush fires have been reported in communities such as Lawrence, Methuen, Londonderry, Pelham and Chester.

While firefighters were battling a blaze that destroyed three homes in Lawrence Saturday, a crew from North Andover had to be called in extinguish a brush fire.

Strong wind gusts this week prompted declaration of a Class 4 fire danger in Massachusetts yesterday, meaning the danger was “very high.” Class 1 is the lowest level and Class 6 the highest.

That meant permitted burns were outlawed in many communities, including Andover and Methuen, because even small fires could quickly spread out of control.

“April is usually when we have the most brush fires,” said Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services. “This is the time of the year when we are always very concerned.”

In New Hampshire, the state Division of Forest and Lands declared yesterday a Class 2 day, meaning there was moderate danger and permitted burns were OK.

But many local fire chiefs weren’t about to take a chance, banning the burning of brush and other yard debris for the day. Derry was one exception, allowing small fires.

But even with a ban in place, any type of fire could lead to devastating consequences because of strong winds yesterday, fire officials said. Gusts were expected to reach up to 41 mph in some areas.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed on days like today with the wind the way it is,” acting Londonderry fire Chief Darren O’Brien said. “The wind has been fierce the last two days.”

Two brush fires have been reported in Londonderry in the past week, one along Interstate 93, the other near Manchester Boston Regional Regional Airport, he said.

Yesterday, Pelham firefighters doused a small brush fire in woods off Dutton Road and there was one reported the day before in Chester.

Salem Fire Marshal Jeffrey Emanuelson said his department usually responds to 25 to 30 brush fires each spring.

“Knock on wood — we’ve been pretty lucky so far,” he said.

Fire officials said although the gusts are expected to subside within the next 24 hours, the biggest threat is the abundance of downed trees, limbs, dry leaves and grass on the ground.

“Obviously, with these winds and we are in such a dry season, it’s a concern,” Windham fire Chief Tom McPherson said. “Our biggest concern is the vegetation.”

McPherson and Lawrence fire Chief Jack Bergeron said now is the ideal time to clean up yard debris that could easily catch fire.

Some people requested permits yesterday, but were told they would have to burn their debris another day, Andover firefighter Dennis Sullivan said.

Permitted burns are allowed in Massachusetts until May 1. New Hampshire regulations vary, depending on the community.

“People are now starting to scramble to get their open burning in before the deadline,” Mieth said.

But in communities with more than 50,000 residents such as Lawrence, permitted burns are outlawed, Bergeron said. He has other concerns.

“All it takes is a discarded cigarette,” Bergeron said yesterday. “On a day like today, it’s amazing how high a flame can go.”