Brush fires spring up; Low humidity, strong wind create tinderbox of dead wood.
OXFORD - Firefighters from across the region battled a massive brush fire yesterday that scorched up to 50 acres in the woods off Diane Drive.
There were no injuries and no houses were damaged, Fire Chief Sheri R. Bemis said.
Chief Bemis said fire towers in Oxford and Charlton saw the smoke yesterday. Douglas authorities reported smoke about 11:15 a.m. The smoke from the fire could be seen for miles.
The fire activated the District 7 Strike Team, which brings firefighters and equipment from across the region beyond the normal mutual aid. The West 2 and East 1 brush strike teams responded, the chief said.
Firefighters finally left the area around 6 p.m. on a day when the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning that remained in effect through the evening. The warning meant strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures could create the potential for explosive fire growth.
Chief Bemis said the gusty winds, combined with a very dry forest floor, caused a fast-moving fire that she estimated had already been burning a day before it was even discovered.
"The fire just ran across the surface," the chief said. "You could put your hand down and right below the brush was wet soil. So it was less than 1/8-inch-thick, but it just ran."
She said the fire was initially within a couple of hundred yards of several homes, but the bulk of the firefighting operation concentrated on the Hodges Village Dam Army Corps of Engineers property.
According to observations at Worcester Regional Airport at 3 p.m. yesterday, the humidity was 28 percent and winds were gusting to more than 30 mph, ideal fire-spreading conditions, fire officials said.
Charles Foley, a meteorologist in the Weather Service office in Taunton, said conditions are expected to be similar today and there was a good possibility a red flag warning would be issued again.
In addition to Oxford firefighters, firefighters from Spencer, Sturbridge, Southbridge, Charlton, Auburn, Leicester, Dudley and Northbridge answered the call to battle the brush fire. Firefighters from Douglas and Millbury covered fire stations in Oxford. The Worcester County Brush Task Force and two teams from the state Department of Recreation and Conservation also responded.
Oakham and Clinton Fire departments responded to brush fires in their respective towns yesterday. The blaze in Oakham, reported just after noon, burned about a half acre off of East Hill Road and the Clinton fire, reported at 1:36 p.m., was in the area of 100 Fitch Road. There was also a brush fire reported in Fitchburg Sunday.
Northbridge Fire Lt. David B. Nowlan said fire permits are not issued when a red flag warning is issued. He said dry weather conditions during the past two weeks, combined with windy conditions and low humidity, means it is too dangerous for outside burning. He said he usually doesn't issue a burning permit when the wind blows more than 12 mph because the wind at that speed could pick up burning embers and blow them on to nearby roofs and property and possibly cause a fire.
Auburn acting Fire Chief Stephen M. Coleman said two factors are also worth noting when it comes to brush fires.
"First, is the wind we've had for the past few weeks," he said. "Then there was the damage from what we all know was brutal winter, and there is still fuel for brush fires that is on the ground from the ice storm two-and-a-half years ago."
Acting Chief Coleman and Gardner Fire Capt. Richard P. Ares said trees and limbs that crashed to the ground during and after the ice storm of Dec. 11-12, 2008, have dried out, making them prime fuel for a spreading brush fire.
Bill Fortier and Linda Bock of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.
ART: PHOTO; GRAPH
CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Webster Firefighter Ralph St. Germain works his way around the perimeter of 50-acre brush fire off Diane Drive yesterday. (GRAPH) Brush fires in Massachusetts: Average per month, 2004 - 2008
PHOTOG: (PHOTO) T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR (GRAPH) T&G Staff/DON LANDGREN JR.