Wildfire in Ohio
Each year an average of 1,000 wildfires burn 4,000 to 6,000 acres of forest and grassland within Ohio’s forest fire protection district, which corresponds mostly to the state’s unglaciated hill country.
In a typical year it is estimated that more than 15,000 wildfire and natural fuel fire occurrences are encountered statewide. These wildfires are attributed primarily to the careless burning of debris and household litter and arson and result in untold damage to trees and landscape, water quality, improvements such as fences and outbuildings, and place people and their homes at significant risk.
Ohio’s wildfire seasons occur primarily in the spring (March, April and May) before vegetation has “greened-up”, and the fall (October and November) when leaf drop occurs. During these times and especially when weather conditions are warm, windy and with low humidity, cured vegetation is particularly susceptible to burning. Fuel (vegetation, woody debris), weather (wind, temperature, humidity) and topography (hills and valleys) when combined present an unpredictable danger to unwary civilians and firefighters in the path of a wildfire.
Wildfire protection in Ohio had its origins in southern Ohio in the early 1920s. Division of Forestry Fire Wardens had the responsibility to reorganize fire crews, keep hand tools and equipment ready, and enforce burning regulations. When a wildfire occurs today, its suppression falls mostly to the local fire department. Within the forest fire protection district of the state, the ODNR Division of Forestry has cooperative agreements with over 300 rural volunteer fire departments (VFDs). These VFDs receive a nominal payment in return for providing a wildfire report to the Division. The Division also offers training to firefighters ranging from basic wildfire instruction to specialized courses to improve skills necessary in the complex and dangerous business of wildland firefighting. The Division maintains some larger specialized equipment such as bulldozers to assist in suppression efforts. A limited number of vehicles and equipment are also loaned as available to cooperating VFDs through the Federal Excess Personal Property Program.
Wild Fire in the U.S.
Several million acres are burned annually across the United States. In contrast to the human caused fires of Eastern U.S., many western wildfires are caused by lightning, often burn for extended periods of time, and result in massive loss of natural resources and property. Personnel from the ODNR Division of Forestry who have meet rigorous training and fitness qualifications have been called upon to assist in western fire crew assignments in such places as Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California. Closer to home, Ohio along with six other states, participates as a member of the Middle Atlantic Interstate Forest Fire Protection Compact.
Forest Advisory Council
The Forestry Advisory Council provides advice and recommendations to the Chief concerning forestry programs in the state. Forestry personnel participate in and host local and county fire service meetings, training sessions, and periodic open houses to facilitate cooperation and dialogue about wildland fire protection issues in Ohio.
Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants
Through the federal Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) program administered by the Division, grants for equipment and to organize and train are available to rural fire departments serving communities with less than 10,000 population. Since the program began in 1975, greater than $2 million has been distributed in more than 800 grants to Ohio’s rural fire departments. Applications are mailed annually to all of state’s approximately 1,300 fire departments.
Incident Command System
The Division has been a primary motivator and contributor to statewide adoption of a common incident command system or ICS. In use for some time, particularly by the fire service community, ICS uses common terminology and management to more effectively and efficiently respond to all types and sizes of disasters and emergencies. It is particularly beneficial when different agencies and jurisdictions interact and respond to a common incident. The Division, Ohio Emergency Management Agency, and a multitude of other state agencies and organizations have formed a Steering Committee to address ICS in Ohio.
Smokey Bear, the familiar and friendly symbol of forest fire prevention for over 50 years, is responsible for increased awareness of the danger and damage that can result from careless human caused wildfires. The Smokey Bear image is federally regulated and development and distribution of fire prevention materials is a cooperative effort of the State Foresters, U.S. Forest Service and the Advertising Council.
Fire in Nature
Knowledge of the role that fire plays in ecosystems has led to the use of prescribed fire and altered policies regarding the management and control of natural-occurring wildfires in many regions of the country. Fire as a useful tool can eliminate undesirable vegetation and the hazard from the buildup of dead fuels, as well as encourage desired vegetation that is dependent upon periodic fire for its survival.
Now nostalgic reminders of a bygone era, fire lookout towers at one time numbered three dozen in Ohio and were the mainstay of forest fire detection. Use of aircraft for spotting wildfires replaced detection from fixed locations, but themselves succumbed to escalating costs of operation. Reliance for reporting of wildfires today falls upon local residents and passing motorists.
Wildfire and the Law
Open burning is regulated by state laws and local burning ordinances, which may vary from one jurisdiction to another. Outside municipal limits, burning is prohibited from 6 am to 6 pm during the months of March, April, May, October and November. It is during these times of the year and day that wildfires are most likely to occur and are the most difficult to control. Residents should contact their local fire official with jurisdiction for the applicable laws and regulations.
Outdoor Fire Safety
When open burning is permitted, adherence to safe burning practices will reduce the danger of a fire to escape control, and the necessity for a call to firefighters. Care with fire when camping and visiting state forests, parks and other areas will ensure that natural resources will remain for others to enjoy.
Sources to Learn More about Wildland Fire
- Local fire department
- Local library
- Fire in America by Stephen J. Pyne; Princeton University Press
- Forest Fire Control and Use by Brown and Davis; McGraw-Hill
- Fire Ecology by Wright and Bailey; John Wiley & Sons