Fire forester says season has sprung in Midstate

ELIZABETHVILLE, Pa. (WHTM) – The official start of spring is still more than a week away, but experts say the Midstate wildfire season is already in full swing.

“We’ve had quite a few fires,” says Steven Ziegler, a fire forester with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “I think we’re up to 19 already in our district. Just yesterday we had seven.”

Entering his third season on the job, Ziegler patrols the massive Weiser State Forest District spanning seven counties, including Dauphin, Lebanon, Schuylkill, and Northumberland. His large patrol truck carries 150 gallons of water and hand tools for cutting through brush and creating a fire line. This time of year, when he’s not responding to wildfire calls as a firefighter or investigator, he’s constantly surveying the land.

“There’s a lot of preplanning that goes into our fire seasons,” he says. “I’m always looking for ways to access the land, should something happen. We don’t get a lot of the really big fires like you always see out west, but I think for the number of fires, we’re pretty active in the eastern area. As far as Pennsylvania as a whole, this district is usually one of the most active.”

On the Weiser tract outside of Elizabethville, Ziegler and other DCNR staff members update a Forest Fire Danger sign up to several times per day, depending on weather conditions. A colorful gauge informs forest visitors to the current level of fire danger ranging from low and moderate to high, very high or extreme, based on information provided by the U.S Forest Service Wildfire Assessment Service.

“Today, it’s been both high and moderate,” he said. “We’ve had record temperatures this week. In the spring, we start getting longer days, and the sun is higher in the sky. You still don’t have any leaves on the trees above, and the fuels are plentiful on the forest floor. That leaf litter can dry out very quickly. In a matter of hours after a heavy rain, it can burn.”

According to Ziegler, nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by people, usually through an uncontrolled open burn or campfire.

“A lot of it is debris burning,” he adds. “People trying to get rid of some trash that they’ve got lying around their yard. A lot of spring cleaning. They want to just quickly burn something, and the fuels around your pile are just right there, prepped and ready to ignite. All they need is that heat source hitting them, and they can quickly move up the mountain.”

While many Midstate municipalities have complete bans on open burning, others allow at least limited burning. While Ziegler recommends contracting a trash collector for debris removal, rather than burning at all, he says there are safer methods for burning.

“They key is to pick the best days to do it,” says Ziegler. “If we’ve had rain for a couple of days, that might be a good time. You don’t want to be out there burning on a day with 15mph winds. The best is to contain your fire to a barrel, with mesh over [the] top. If you have a pile of debris in your yard, we recommend at least a ten-foot buffer zone around the fire, clear of grass and leaves.”

Ziegler says when making that decision to burn, keep others, including volunteer firefighters and his fellow foresters in mind.

“They’ll be the ones responding, putting their lives on the line if something gets out of hand,” he says. “You’re putting [in] jeopardy the safety of yourself, your neighbors, property and the wild resources around us. For what? To burn a pile of trash?”

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