North Georgia’s drought and fires by the numbers
• 55: brush and tree fires the Georgia Forestry Commission responded to from Friday-Monday
• 364: fires in the Coosa District in October, which includes Forsyth
• 241: percent the 5-year fire average is up in Georgia
FORSYTH COUNTY -- Officials are warning residents throughout North Georgia to be wary of wildfire.
From Friday to Monday, the Georgia Forestry Commission responded to 55 brush and tree fires across the northern part of the state, including a number in neighboring Cherokee County.
Forsyth County is part of the northern district, or the Coosa District, which saw 364 fires in the month of October, according to Shawn Alexander, district ranger for the Commission.
Statewide, the number of fires is up 241 percent from the five-year running average, and Alexander said for the Coosa district, that number is likely closer to 300 percent.
Though Forsyth County has not yet seen anything out of the ordinary, Fire Department Division Chief Jason Shivers said conditions are especially worrisome this year.
“That does not take away from the fact that conditions are ripe,” he said. “This very dry summer has transitioned into a very dry fall and in autumn of this year, we’ve had very little rain. Conditions outdoors are ripe for very fast-moving, dangerous brush fires.”
Shivers emphasized brush fires — as opposed to forest fires — are the concern in Forsyth County.
“We don’t have much of the forest areas — very few large spans of timber like you’d think of in the mountains,” he said. “But we do have a lot of green space, meadows, pastures, golf courses and parks. Wildland areas butt up against residences and suburban homes, and where those two worlds collide, there can be an increased risk for fire.”
Last month, the Georgia Forestry Commission restricted outdoor burning in Forsyth County past the normal date when the summer burn ban ends due to drought conditions.
Usually, the ban runs from May through September and only restricts the burning of leaves, trash, yard debris and storm damage, generally still allowing camp fires, cooking fires and warming fires at construction sites.
Given current weather conditions, the county’s fire marshal has issued an all-burn ban.
Forsyth County is considered to be in severe drought, except for the northwest corner of the county that is in the worse-off extreme drought along with much of north Georgia, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
There are swaths of counties to the northwest and south of Forsyth that are in exceptional drought, the most intense classification.
“The Fire Marshal’s Office feels conditions are so dangerous that we’ve implemented a total ban on all burning,” Shivers said. “It’s rare for us to do so, but it’s within our local purview. Our fire ordinance [allows] us to halt all outdoor burning if conditions require it.”
Conditions, he said, do necessitate the ban, given the lack of ground moisture due to this year’s warm weather, low humidity and little rain.
“Leaf fall is also heavily setting in and the leaf layer has no moisture, so it will ignite and burn rapidly,” Shivers said. “The least little bit of a breeze providing oxygen to [a spark] is going to move that fire along quickly.”
Shivers emphasized that although fire officials are not looking for citizens violating the ban, the department is required to respond to reports of burnings.
“We’re not out policing the community, but if someone has a campfire and their neighbor calls, we’re obligated now to go out and ask them to put out the fire,” he said. “This isn’t to create a police state, it’s [just] there’s too much danger to their neighbors. It’s all in the interest of public safety.”
Brush fires have not yet proven a significant issue for county officials.
Shivers said the fire department is wary of conditions and ready to react.
“We’re a little ahead of the reactionary response a lot of north Georgia has had, but I think it’s prevented us from having the fires other counties have seen,” he said.
Shivers said residents should be mindful of how they dispose of cigarettes.
“One of more common brush fire occurrences is small spot fires along roads and highways from cigarettes,” he said. “It’s frequent in this kind of weather and as cars move past, brush fires spread quickly because of wind flow. Within a few minutes, we’ll have multiple small fires to chase up and down the highway. We’d just appreciate everyone being mindful.”
For questions or more information on burning regulations, go to Forsythco.com or call the Forsyth County Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Office at (678) 455-8072.