Since the beginning of April, local fire departments from multiple counties, as well as state fire crews from DCNR, have amassed thousands of combined man-hours to do battle against two dozen wind-fueled brush fires.
Yesterday alone, firefighters in Schuylkill County had to deal with six outdoor fires, which were fueled by dry brush, high winds, cyclic weather patterns or arson. According to the National Weather Service, wind gusts peaked at 45 mph Monday.
The largest of those fires, which claimed 10.5 acres in West Penn Township, was made more difficult by the location's steep terrain. The fire, aerated by high winds, quickly raced up a steep, grassy field and into a heavily wooded area.
It then spread to a large grassy field enclosed by SR443 and Spring Road. Trying to head off the fast-moving fire, firefighters had to maneuver through private properties and steep roads. Requests for air drops were grounded due to high winds so firefighters, dragging hoses and carrying heavy water packs (Indian tanks), had no choice but to hike up the steep mountain to battle the hot spots.
"The fire was probably sparked by a cigarette thrown out the window of a passing vehicle," West Penn Police Officer Melissa Moyer stated.
Another brush fire last night at the Bungalow Park in Tamaqua was said to be intentionally started.
"We call this type of fire a duff fire," said Eric Lilly, Forest Fire Warden, District 18, DCNR, on the West Penn blaze. "These fires burn underground in roots and decay plant matter. We have to dig six to eight inches down to reach these spots."
"Almost all of the fire was located on a steep, 35 degree slope," said, Clint Schock, assistant fire chief, West Penn Fire Company. "This and high winds made it challenging for firefighters."
"Winds were blowing pretty hard. At times they were up to about 30 mph," said Bob Kurilla, assistant district forester for the Weiser Forest District. "With winds pushing the fire, it oftentimes creates a rapid spread and control problems."
Kurilla said the cause of the Sunday evening and Monday morning fires has yet to be determined, as the investigation continues.
"There's a chance of showers (today) and Wednesday, but nothing significant, only about a quarter of an inch," Matt Steinbugl, meteorologist for the NWS, said Monday afternoon. "It's going to remain dry over the next several days and we may be revisiting fire concerns again next weekend."
"Lower humidity, higher temperatures and high winds – those factors combined create the potential for rapid fire spread," Kurilla said. "The fire danger is very high and it is expected to continue until we get a soaking rain."
Tom Bartasavage, who has a home adjacent to yesterday's brush fire in West Penn, was very grateful.
"All these firefighters are second to none," he said. "Thank you firefighters!"
Responding were firefighters from three counties, consisting of West Penn, Tuscarora, Tamaqua, New Ringgold, Walker, Bowmanstown, Mahoning Valley, Franklin, Lehighton, Perryville, East Penn, New Tripoli, Germansville and others. Over 30 firefighters with DCNR's State Forestry fire crews (Franklin, Tamaqua and Penn Forest Fire Control Station) also responded, spending hours cutting down trees, raking and extinguishing hot spots. Also responding were West Penn police, Penn Mahoning Ambulance and West Penn fire police.
John Matz, Schuylkill County Emergency Management coordinator, said dozens of local departments and forestry agents were called to battle these blazes. Matz said they were unable to drop water from an airplane due to the high winds.
West Penn firefighters were called to another brush fire at 234 Mountain Drive just before 10:30 a.m. today.
Volunteers with the Schuylkill and Eastern Northumberland Chapter of the American Red Cross also responded and provided food and refreshments to the fire crews.
West Penn Township fire company officers were thankful for the quick response from all responding fire companies.