The pile of downed tree limbs and scraggly, unwanted brush have burned to a pile of gray, hot ashes topped by a few charred remains.
You step aside from the smoldering fire for a few minutes, only to return and find a gust of wind whipped up some embers, blowing them into an open field starting a brush fire. Before you know it, several fire departments are battling fast moving flames that — if the weather cooperates — can be doused completely.
Given the dearth of frozen precipitation this winter, the above scenario is a strong possibility for the next month in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont, according to area fire officials. Massachusetts Office of the State Fire Marshal points out April is the worst month for brush fires as the landscape has yet to green up.
"The lack of rain, lack of snow and a couple of windy, dry days and the fire hazard becomes high," said Pittsfield, Mass., Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski. "If you walk away and leave a fire unattended, the wind can kick up and [the fire] can get away from you."
Czerwinski and his fellow firefighting colleagues urge homeowners this spring to burn responsibly. In Massachusetts, the open burning season for natural wood — no grass, leaves or stumps, please — that began Jan. 15, ends May 1. For Vermont residents, state law allows year-round outdoor incineration, the bulk of which occurs in March, April and May— with a permit — but again, only for brush, tree limbs and other natural woody matter.
Massachusetts also requires homeowners obtain a permit from their local fire department, with 15 of the 32 Berkshire cities and towns part of the online permitting process at bcburnpermits.com. While not a state law, Vermont municipalities can, and some do, require local permits.
Bennington, Vt., charges homeowners $5 for each two-week permit; those renting must also have written permission from their landlord.
In both states, the permits are valid depending on weather conditions. If too dry and windy, open outdoor burning is a no-no.
Bennington Town Fire Warden Matthew Hathaway keeps close watch on days of hazardous fire conditions, making people aware if a burn ban is in effect.
"I go around and give [those people burning] the benefit of the doubt the first time and keep track and write it down to see if I've been there before," he said.
Vermont homeowners simply call their town fire warden to get a permit — weather permitting — but some tend to ignore the requirement, believing they, as property owners, have the right to burn anytime they want according to Lars Lund of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
Permit or not, safety is key to preventing a controlled burn getting out of control, causing a brush fire.
"[Fire wardens] will ask people to have a hose handy, to attend the fire at all times and to keep it small and safe," said Vermont state forestry specialist Tess Greaves.
"Use your head and don't go inside to get a cup of coffee while the pile is burning," added Peru, Mass., Fire Chief Eric Autenrieth.
Peru is one of 15 Berkshire communities that relies on online-burn permitting to track where the authorized outdoor fires are on a given day. Autenrieth finds the high-tech approach to public safety crucial in a rural community.
"When someone applies, I get an email as to who is burning and can have a list at my disposal and be ready to respond if a fire gets out of control," he said.
Once you get your burn permit, here are a few important safety tips to remember:
• Keep the burn pile small, free of leaves, grass clippings, hay and construction material; only brush, deadwood and prunings.
• Fire should be well away from buildings (minimum 75 feet in Massachusetts).
• Use paper and kindling as fuel to ignite the fire — never throw gasoline or other flammable liquid onto the pile.
• A hose or other water supply, shovels and metal rakes must be handy to keep fire under control, eventually used to douse the flames.
• NEVER walk away from an outdoor open fire until it has been thoroughly extinguished.
Source: Massachusetts Office of the State Fire Marshal