Since the severe winter with its record-breaking snowfalls finally appears behind us, thoughts of spring and outdoor activities have replaced those cabin fever doldrums for many of us.

But there is a cautionary note to go along with that transition into spring, which occurs this weekend. Although it's been a wet winter and the ground seems well saturated, officials are advising residents that March winds can quickly create tinderbox conditions in the 17 million acres of state and private woodlands and brush lands.

Although outdoor fires may not be high on many peoples' priority list this time of year, it is a fact that the two most likely times for fires in Pennsylvania is in early spring after the snow melts and before the new greenery appears, and in fall, before the first snowfall, when leaves are dry.

Weather experts tell us that significant wildfires in Pennsylvania are linked to a strong northwest flow on the western side of an upper level trough located just off the Atlantic coast. This differs from the prevalent dry soil and hot temperatures often associated with major wildfires in the southwestern U.S., the Rocky Mountains, and the West Coast

Since so many of our towns are located near woodlands and because 85 percent of the state's wildfires occur in March, April and May, local residents are reminded to be extra careful with their controlled burning.

With these facts in mind, the governor proclaimed this week as Wildfire Prevention Week. There are sobering statistics to back up the governor's concerns. First, wildfires scorch nearly 10,000 acres of state and private woodlands each year. Nearly all wildfires (98 percent) are caused by humans and by far, most are caused by people burning debris and arson. Less than 1 percent is caused by lightning.

Because of these dangers, open fires are prohibited on state forestland until May 25 and when the fire danger is listed as high, very high or extreme, unless authorized by district foresters.

Communities in heavily wooded areas are urged to follow wildfire prevention and suppression methods outlined by the Pennsylvania Firewise Community Program. The Bureau of Forestry at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources oversees the state's efforts to suppress the wildfire threat, working with district fire wardens and volunteer fire departments to train them in the latest techniques.

Citizens must be aware that a discarded cigarette butt or a spark from any piece of equipment can quickly turn our greened woodlands or mountains into a wall of fire.

More about the state's Wildfire Prevention Week activities can be found by calling the Bureau of Forestry at (717) 787-2925; or visiting www.dcnr.state.pa.us (select "Forestry," and then "Forest Fire Protection").

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com