Severe drought sparks fires on campus

By Jared Crain, Campus Carrier Deputy News Editor

Georgia Drought graphic (resized).jpg
 The Georgia Drought Monitor portrays varying levels of drought intensity resulting in increased wildfire risk, as released on Oct. 27. Northwest Georgia is the area of greatest intensity.

A significant drought currently plagues Northwest Georgia, particularly the Mt. Berry and Rome areas. Berry has issued a ban on any outdoor open flames on campus, which will continue until outdoor conditions return to safe levels in regard to air and ground moisture.  

Gary Will, assistant vice president for campus security and emergency response management, explained that within the past month on campus, wildfires have become a major concern.

Berry has taken safe measures including notifying locals of current fire conditions, removing firewood from public venues, posting signage and banning all open fire in the area.  

One forest fire started across the street from Season’s Harvest and another alongside CCC road.  While the severe drought is clearly responsible for the severity of the fires, no specific sources are known.

“It’s some sort of human involvement,” Will said. “It may not be anything intentional, it’s just a matter of a spark from a cigarette, a campfire or even a lawnmower potentially hitting a rock.”

Senior environmental science major and employee at Berry College Land Resources Zachary Lemcke explained that officials reacted swiftly to the wildfire that occurred on the south side of CCC Road on October 23.

A nearby driver saw and reported the fire, and the Rome Fire Department, the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) and Berry College Land Resources quickly contained it.

“It is plausible that the ignition point was a discarded cigarette,” Lemcke said. “The only damage was a few acres of planted pine.”

There have also been wildfires in Walker County and Whitfield County near Chattanooga due to the drought.  On Monday afternoon, Whitfield county news released that the fire on Rocky Face Mountain covered 200 acres. This fire has yet to be extinguished, and it will continue to take time to completely control the fire because there are areas that the Georgia Forestry Commission reports they cannot get to.

Will explained that the Georgia Forestry Commission is the principle wildfire response crew in the state.  Chief Ranger Mike Brunson of the GFC in Floyd County told the Rome News-Tribune that no burn permits will be issued until the area receives significant rainfall.  

Part of the reason wildfires are currently so concerning and sporadic is that it is hard to estimate where a fire will spring up in these dry conditions.

When someone burns a pile of debris or lets a lighted cigarette loose, ashes from the source can disperse hundreds of yards away and still ignite a fire due to the dryness of the soil, which may have  occurred along CCC road.

“It’s so dry that the fire can even get under the ground, and if it gets into the roots of a dead stump, the fire will stay underground in those roots for days,” Will said.  “It will continue to smoke and, depending on weather conditions, could flame up again.”

According to Lemcke, the addition of fallen leaves, high winds, and 25 percent humidity puts Berry and the surrounding community under a Class 5 risk, that is, Extreme Fire Danger.

Typical levels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Index this time of year are around 100.  Rome is currently experiencing levels around 700.  The drought afflicting Berry campus and most of Northwest Georgia is listed as a D4, the most severe level on the U.S. Drought Monitor.  

“We’ve had some bad falls, I guess this is probably going to be the worst one we’ve had since 2001,” Brunson said.  

Will explained that the Land Resources unit, trained to contain small fires, has been working to build fire breaks by clearing trees and underbrush around certain areas so that fires are contained.  The unit frequently scouts the firebreaks to make sure they remain functional and protective.

“The fact remains that fires are still a possibility,” Lemcke said.

Leave a Reply