by Lizzy Street—
Between Feb. 15 and April 30 of each year, the Virginia Department of Forestry places a ban on open-air burning before 4 p.m. Since its implementation in 1950, the 4 p.m. burning law and its affiliated laws have made significant changes in the state’s yearly destruction from wildfires.
According to Deputy Regional Forester Chris Thomsen, Virginia experienced about 20,000 fires and 250,000 acres of destruction every year before the laws were in place.
“We must’ve looked a little like California,” said Thomsen. “Today, we have about 2,000 fires for maybe 20,000 acres, so it’s gone down considerably, and this law is certainly a huge part of that.”
Thomsen says that the enforcement period is so important because of the season’s weather conditions: low humidity, high winds and rising temperatures — all of which can contribute to the start and spread of wildfires. An article in Scientific American suggests that climate change and warming temperatures are perhaps creating an even longer fire season in the United States, increasing possible risks.
The Virginia Department of Forestry website identifies debris burning as the number one cause of wildfires in the state. This type of burning is prevalent in rural areas, like parts of Southwest Virginia.
“When you don’t have curbside pickup of trash or when you have to pay a little extra — as they do in rural counties — it’s much easier to have the 50-gallon barrel in your backyard and just throw your trash in,” Thomsen said.
Though convenient, this type of burning can be hazardous if the laws are violated.
Forest wardens like Johnathan Vest, who works for Giles and Montgomery Counties, find the laws to be most effective for educating the public about safe practices, rather than being “hammer and nail enforcement [tools].”
“Our biggest advantage of the burn laws is, without a doubt, the hope of educating folks to do things properly,” said Vest.
This education has proven effective over the years. Thomsen, with 37 years on the job, notes that the restrictions outlined in the laws “cut down on fires significantly.” As a result, Virginia now has one of the lowest per-acre protection costs in the Southeast — all while saving lives, properties and forestland.