Virginia's Fire History

Wildfire in Virginia: A Historical Review

Prior to the establishment of the Virginia Division of Forestry in 1914 (in 1984 to become the Virginia Department of Forestry) it was not uncommon for many hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland to be burned in wildfires each year. One of the main roles of the newly established Division of Forestry was to “prevent the destruction of forests by fire.”

The following statistics are from 1917 (the earliest known to be recorded in VA): Number of fires - 1,460

Causes:

  • Lightning 2%
  • Railroads 19%
  • Lumbering 18%
  • Brush Burning 27%
  • Campfires 4%
  • Incendiary 5%
  • Miscellaneous 7%
  • Unknown 18%

Total acres burned: 305,000

Total damage: $809,000

Fatalities: 2

It took several years for the newly established Division of Forestry to develop programs, initiate laws, build a workforce and develop a cooperation with various timber related industries and the U.S.Forest Service who themselves were only established nine years earlier.

Fires began to drop and in 1927, 404 fires burned only 27, 863 acres an all time low for Virginia. The number of fires and the acreages burned are greatly impacted by weather conditions and this fact was no truer than in 1930, the year of the great drought in Virginia. As quoted in an early document “1930 will be long remembered in Virginia, not only for its yearlong fire season and unprecedented, disastrous summer fires, but also because it brought disaster to many farmers and stockmen. Coming as it did immediately following the stock market crash in the fall of 1929; its economic effects were severely felt.”

Wildfire statistics: 1930

Number of fires- 2,554

Total acres burned- 333,023

It should be noted that these statistics are only for approximately 58 counties, no records for the others exist.

Things settled down some till 1941, 1942 and 1943 when on average 2,970 fires burned 148,937 acres each of the 3 years.

Then along came Smokey Bear in 1944, and the start of an advertising campaign that is among the best, most successful ever. Smokey and his message of “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” and “Smokey’s Friends Don’t Play with Matches”served us well and still does today. Maybe it was because of Smokey or maybe due to the weather, or as I feel it was a combination of both that in 1948 Virginia recorded for the first time less than 10,000 acres burned. In that year there were 1,006 fires which burned 7,782 acres.

Even with Smokey Virginia had several “bad” years ahead. In 1952 2,494 fires burned 111,571 acres. This was the last year Virginia recorded over 100,000 acres burned for the year. 1963 was remembered as another year that there was “fire everywhere” as was quoted in an early historical document. In this year 3,300 fires burned 44,823 acres.

Wildfire statistics: 1995

April 9. Fueled by dry conditions, dead trees and limbs and gusty winds. More than 66 acres of forest burned in Buckingham County; 150 acres of forest in Franklin County burned with the evacuation of 65 residents; 24 acres of forest in Pittsylvania County burned. Total property damage from the fires was greater than $50,000.

Wildfire statistics: 1999

Virginia Department of Forestry reported the Fire Season (January-July) recorded 1,320 fires burning 6,146 acres of land. Cumulative Severity Index (1-800 rating for fire danger) rated Northern Virginia at 628 by end of July. On April 2, fire burned over 400 acres on Afton Mountain. The fire was fueled by strong winds, dead vegetation and very dry conditions. Property damage estimated at $2,000. On July 9, White Post, Clarke County. A combine working in a wheat field overheated and started a fire which spread rapidly as a result of the extremely dry conditions. The fire destroyed the combine ($92,000) and 60 acres of wheat ($6,700), 5 acres of farmland and 2 acres of woodland. Six firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion.

Wildfire statistics: 2001 fall fire season

This is the only season on record where the agency utilized a large number of out-of-state resources (12 USFS crews, 6 Florida Division of Forestry engines and 1 Florida Division of Forestry plane and pilot) and was the only year where FEMA stepped in to provide wildfire funding assistance to support the disaster. For the entire year we recorded 2,232 wildfires which burned 19,476 acres, very similar to the fires of 1930 much of the acreage burned was directly related to the drought conditions.

Wildfire statistics: 2002

In 2002, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) managed 1,684 wildfires, which burned 13,325 acres. Though drought conditions caused the spring fire season to begin early, recurring rain events in late March and April limited wildfire activity during the Spring Fire Season. Following this slight break in activity, wildfire activity resumed during the normally light summer months as drought returned, causing conditions to reach extreme levels on a statewide basis by mid-June, resulting in one of the state's busiest summer wildfire seasons in the last ten years.

Drought predictions continued for the remainder of the calendar year, and resulted in a great deal of planning and preparation at all levels to handle what was developing into potentially one of Virginia's worst wildfire years in recent memory. Fortunately, the predictions did not hold true. By early fall and the start of the normal fall wildfire season, recurring periodic rainfall developed on almost a weekly basis bringing an end to the wildfire activity for the year.

It is important to note that in spite of the fact that only minimal wildfire activity occurred during the timeframes of the traditional spring and fall wildfire seasons, the calendar year totals for wildfires and acreage still exceeded the 10-year averages. In Virginia, 2002 was the fourth busiest year in the last 15 years, showing the severity of the abnormal summertime wildfire season.

National Incident Response

2002 developed into yet another disastrous wildfire season in the western United States. Several records were set during 2002 regarding the length and level of severity of the summer wildfire season. Throughout the summer, the VDOF was able to provide 166 incident management and firefighter personnel for voluntary out-of-state wildfire assignments in support of this effort. These assignments prove very valuable to Virginia, helping to further develop the overall experience level and incident management background of agency personnel for wildfire situations that can develop locally.

Training

2002 marked the second annual statewide Wildfire Training Academy. The statewide academy along with several smaller academies and specific training on a county basis, supports the agencies commitment to train and utilize part-time firefighters as well as Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) resources to provide prompt effective wildfire suppression resources for the Commonwealth.

In 2002, the Department of Forestry provided 32 wildland fire training courses to almost 1,000 wildland firefighters, in addition to numerous other localized training for county VFDs. All training efforts included the participation andassistance of the state's cooperative federal wildfire partners, and meet the course guidelines of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

In November, 200 new National Guardsmen were trained as wildland firefighters, plus an additional 14 helicopter pilots and crew personnel received refresher type safety training, in preparation for what was predicted to be an especially bad fall wildfire season. National Guard resources will continue to be important to Virginia for wildfire use in times of emergency.

Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) Assistance

In 2002, 236 rural volunteer fire departments received the $245,856 Volunteer Fire Assistance funds made available to Virginia. Grants were awarded for organizing, training, and equipping rural fire departments. This program continues to be an important tool for developing the capacity of VFDs in Virginia.

Prescribed Burning

The summer drought had a significant impact on reducing prescribed burning accomplishments for the year. A Governor's executive order during the summer urged citizens to refrain from outdoor burning, and the VDOF along with other state agencies chose not to complete any prescribed burning projects as long as the order was in place. The limitations remained in effect through late November. These limitations essentially prevented any prescribed burning from taking place during the normally busy late summer/fall site preparation season. In 2002, the VDOF recorded 6,891 acres of prescribed burning.

The Forest Protection Team of the Virginia Department of Forestry is concerned with and responsible for the prevention, detection, and suppression of all wildfires. All Department employees are involved in a broad range of activities that help accomplish our goals, which are to prevent injury or loss of human life, and to minimize damage to real property, timber and other natural resources.

Records indicate that most of Virginia's wildfires are caused by people. Virginia is growing more rapidly than many other states, and it's population has doubled in the last 45 years. People are moving into residential developments in forested areas, and there is an increased use of the forests for recreational uses. All this increases the risk of wildfires and requires continued fire prevention and protection activities.

Virginia's wildfire season is normally in the Spring (March & April) and then again in the Fall (October & November). Why do you think this is so? The answer is that during these times the relative humidities are usually lower, winds tend to be higher, and the fuels are cured to the point where they readily ignite. Also hardwood leaves are on the ground providing more fuel, and allowing sunlight to directly reach the forest floor, warming and drying the surface fuels.

Fire activity fluctuates during each month and also varies from year to year. During years Virginia gets adequate rain and snow keeping fire occurance low. Lack of moisture during other years means extended periods of warm, dry, windy, days and therefore increased fire activity.

With better wildfire suppression equipment, an increase in personnel, strong fire prevention and law enforcement program and the continued assistance and support of the fire departments all across Virginia the numbers of fires and acreage burned has remained fairly low as compared to the “early years.” The yearly number of fires over the ten year period (1993-2002) has averaged 1,426 and the number of acres burned was 9,444.

Last modified: Wednesday, 12-Mar-2014 13:02:39 EDT