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Officials: 33 weekend brush fires a reminder of hazards

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

LAWRENCEVILLE -- In the eyes of fire officials, carelessness is fodder for fast-moving and destructive conflagrations that plague Georgia in the drier, windier wildfire season that is February through May.

The last four days only underscored their concerns.

Officials are reiterating outdoor burning rules after a rash of more than 30 grass and brush fires were reported over Easter weekend in Gwinnett and Barrow counties.

A Lawrenceville woman on Monday was hospitalized at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta after a pile of leaves she was burning on Lamancha Drive took off and scorched a half-acre.

Wind and dry grasses -- along with residents itching to beat an April 30 burn deadline -- contributed to 15 fires in Barrow on Friday and Saturday. The causes ranged from discarded cigarettes, to unattended outdoor burns and juveniles playing with fire in two separate cases, said Barrow County Emergency Services spokesman Lt. Scott Dakin.

One call required a Georgia Forestry Commission crew to cut a fire break to thwart the blaze's path near Carl.

"This is a rather high frequency for one weekend," Dakin said Monday.

Capt. Thomas Rutledge, Gwinnett County Fire Department spokesman, said firefighters responded to 18 similar fires in a two-day span. He reported no injuries or damage to structures, save the Lamancha Drive incident.

"It brings light to the fact that these kind of burns can get out of control very quickly," Rutledge said.

According to the forestry commission, careless debris burning is the primary culprit in Georgia's 8,000 annual wildfires. As a general rule, Georgia's fire season ends in May, but alterations in weather patterns can change that.

Burning is allowed in Gwinnett from Oct. 1 to April 30, with the exception of certain "no burn" days.

Greg Schaffer, Gwinnett County Fire Department Assistant Chief and Fire Marshal, said the decision to allow burning or not is made each morning, based on data -- wind conditions, humidity and temperature, for example -- from the forestry commission and the National Weather Service.

Friday was one such "no burn" day, Schaffer said.

"We've had a lot of those days this year," he said. "In our more urban setting, we have to consider the density of the residences. It's a lot of things to consider.

"We still tell (residents) you're responsible for your smoke, for your fire. It's not that we're opposed to burning, we simply want to use safe burning practices."

Georgia law provides that burning without permission is a misdemeanor with fines up to $1,000. Schaffer said the exact cost of fines is usually determined in court.

Forestry commission permits are required in Gwinnett for only large commercial or land-clearing burns. In more rural areas, permits valid for one day are needed before leaves and debris left by winter months can be incinerated. Burning garbage is forbidden.

Rutledge said firefighters face special challenges in suppressing grass and brush fires, which often rage behind homes or in wooded areas that aren't exactly fit for fire engines.

"It takes a lot of resources," he said.