Battling the blaze: Local fire departments combat wildfires during recent drought

Published 10:12 am Friday, November 10, 2023

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By BARTON PERKINS | Staff Writer

A hazy smoke fills the air, forcing cars to a stop as police close one of the busiest highways between Columbiana and Alabaster on Friday, Nov. 3 as local firefighters tried to control a fire spreading across the dry grass and leaves along County Road 26.

This has been a common theme recently with seven brush fires occurring in Shelby County during the past 30 days, while 393 have been spurred across the state with more than 3,000 acres burning.

“It’s definitely very dry,” said Chelsea Fire Chief Joe Lee, who recently had his department battling a brush fire near U.S. 280. “We haven’t had significant rain in a couple of months now.”

A fire requires only three specific things in order to occur which are fuel, the right weather conditions and a single spark. At the moment, Alabama is dangerously abundant with all three.



In Alabama, the months of October, November and December are marked by a steady dryness and lack of humidity. Weeks can and do go by without a drop of rain, rivers and streams run lower and lower and combustibles, such as dead leaves and dry grass,  gather on the forest floor. For the last 60 days there has not been any rain in the entirety of Alabama, and Gov. Kay Ivey has officially declared both a statewide “no burn order” and a “drought emergency.” 

“We haven’t gotten a lot of rain recently,” said Dave Holley of the Alabama Forestry Commission. “When you combine that with other weather conditions like relative humidity that dries out the leaves, the grass and just everything else. You can hear it when you walk through the forest. Everything just goes ‘crunch, crunch, crunch.’”

Similar to starting a campfire, a forest fire begins with small combustibles being set aflame. The fire then rapidly builds from there, spreading out and consuming sticks then logs and then finally larger materials, such as trees and buildings

“The number of wildland or grass fires has increased this year,” Calera Fire Department Deputy Chief Shane Stoudenmire said. “Nothing has been really big yet, and we’ve been significantly blessed for that.”

To some people, the obvious answer to the problem of having this degree of kindling lying around and simply waiting to start a massive fire is to just have a series of controlled burns. But this is not viable for a couple of reasons.

“Population density plays a big role in that, because of air quality,” Stoudenmire said. “When you start burning off all the underbrush in rural areas some of it will start to settle in the nearby urban areas and create all sorts of issues with air quality.”

Stoudenmire noted that the way the winds have been working the last few months plays a big factor in this, both in how they push smoke into more populated areas and how they can help wildfires spread quickly.


Correct weather conditions

In addition to a fuel source, fire also requires the presence of oxygen and active winds help flames grow and spread. This leads to wildfires finding purchase in more of the dry grass and kudzu that covers much of the county.

“Windy days are when you’re at your highest risk when you burn, because the wind is gonna push these embers in the direction of the land,” Stoudenmire said.

Higher wind speeds and drought are both major contributors to wildfire risk, and both have also been linked to global warming and climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has stated that increased temperature has resulted in a severe lack of moisture in potential fire fuels such as trees, shrubs and forest debris. Studies have also shown that this has in turn more than doubled the rate of large wildfires in the US since 1984.

The current weather conditions may be providing the perfect environment for wildfires, but ultimately a fire cannot be started without a source. While wildfires do naturally occur, brought about by lightning and other natural phenomena, more often than not they are brought about through human action and error.


The spark

When the Saginaw Fire Department reported that six acres of land was burned in a brush fire near County Road 26 on Friday, Nov. 3, they were able to determine that the fire’s origin stemmed from a single bottle rocket.

When conditions are as primed and prepared for fire as Alabama is currently witnessing, something as small as a bottle rocket can lead to a wildfire that can potentially consume countless acres. It was only thanks to the immediate action and reaction from firefighters that this latest fire only spread across six acres.

According to Stoudenmire, the incident was hardly an outlier, saying he has been called to multiple scenes where fires have been started from something as small as someone tossing a smoking cigarette out of their window while driving down the highway.

“Luckily those fires are usually small, but if you get a good windy day, they can quickly get hard to control,”  Stoudenmire said.

Similar to the Smokey Bear saying, “Only you can prevent wildfires,” local fire departments across Shelby County are asking for the help of the public to make sure residents aren’t put into those dangerous situations.

“The best thing that people living in the community can do is just refrain from outdoor burning of all types,” Lee said. “If they can just hold out until this winter when we have plenty of rain, then it’ll be fine. But this isn’t the right time of year to have fires outside.”


The Dangers of fighting fires

When fighting a wildfire, it’s less about putting the fire out and more about just keeping the flames contained and preventing the spread of destruction.

“Depending on the terrain and where the fire’s at, we sometimes just can’t get water up there,” Cahaba Valley Fire Chief Buddy Wilks said. “A lot of times, it just gets into a position where we’re just trying to contain it by clear-cutting lines into the ground.”

Wilks noted that fire departments often call in the local forestry commission to aid in wildfire containment efforts by using tractors to dig trenches around the fire. 

“It’s a lot,” Wilks said. “It’s a very strenuous activity because we are just basically using rakes, hoes and chainsaws to cut down trees and to monitor things.”

Alarmingly, these wildfires can continue on for days. Wilks went so far as to comment that several fire departments in Shelby County have been fighting the same fires for days on end at the time of this writing.

“It’s a very difficult operation we go through and very manpower intensive,” Wilks said. “Just rotating companies around and working with the forestry commission to keep things contained.”

Sometimes, though, the environment gets ahead of the firefighters. The wind may start blowing the other direction, or a stray ember may jump over the trenches and into a fresh batch of dead leaves. That’s when things get truly dangerous.

“There comes a point that you just have to let it go because you can’t get can’t get ahead of it,” Wilks said. “Then it’s all just trying to protect houses and doing your best.”

Luckily, there have been no recorded fatalities in Shelby County from any of the recent wildfires, and all of the firefighters across the assorted departments in the county have expressed their dedication to continuing fighting fires and keeping people safe. They all stressed the importance of abiding by the burn ban as long as it lasts.

“The rain this weekend, if we get it, will probably help the fires that are burning right now,” Wilks said. “But it’s not going to change the drought conditions enough to keep fires from starting elsewhere. It’ll help a little bit, but we’ve got a long period of time for us to get out of real danger.”