A summons has been issued after authorities say an illegal burning set off a 7-acre brush fire in Orange County.
County of Orange Fire & EMS Fire Marshal Mike Throckmorton confirmed on Friday afternoon that the summons was related to a violation of state law prohibiting people from starting a fire within 150 feet of woodland, brushland or field containing dry grass and leaving the flames unattended.
Throckmorton declined to name the individual to be charged with the offense.
Orange County emergency communications received a call at about 1:38 p.m. on Wednesday regarding a spreading fire at an address on Willistown Lane, just west of the town of Orange.
Career firefighters with Orange County worked with Orange, Gordonsville, Rapidan, Mine Run, Barboursville and Lake of the Woods volunteer fire companies as well as crews from Madison, Culpeper and Louisa to contain the fire and prevent damage to nearby houses.
Orange Volunteer Fire Company Chief Whit Jacobs said that the fire was the result of a controlled burn that traveled into the surrounding area.
“We had a large pile of trees that were on the back side of this property that had caught fire as a result of a smaller controlled burn,” Jacobs said. “That particular fire got into a very large pile. That pile then spread to an adjacent field behind the house.”
Jacobs explained that, early on, the situation seemed to be under control until a spot fire ignited along the nearby train tracks at a significantly lower elevation than the original fire.
“We were able to get people down onto the rail line to put that fire out, but the problem we were dealing with was that it was just so dry, the winds were extremely strong,” Jacobs said.
Dense vegetation in the area, including kudzu growing on many of the trees, was another factor that made the flames difficult to control.
“The kudzu was completely surrounding the trees and it caught on fire,” Jacobs said. “We’re used to ground-level fires, sticks, things like that, but we had fire 30 or 40 feet in the air just spreading from treetop to treetop.”
Additional departments that assisted at the site included the Virginia Department of Forestry, which used bulldozers to contain the fire, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which directed traffic and evacuated homes on nearby Baylor Lane and Braxton Lane.
Capt. Jason Smith with the county sheriff’s office was at the scene of the incident and estimated that approximately 10 houses were evacuated during the firefighting efforts. Sheriff’s office officials also evacuated staff and students engaged in extracurricular activities that afternoon at nearby Prospect Heights Middle School and the Taylor Education Administration Complex due to concerns about potential smoke inhalation.
“When I came up [Route] 20, all I could see were flames in the air,” Smith recalled. “Those guys saved a lot of lives that day.”
Orange resident Mollie Turner said she has lived in her neighborhood on Braxton Lane for 50 years, but she said she had never seen anything like Wednesday’s fire.
“It was really scary at first. You see these things on TV, but never face to face,” she said.
According to Turner, officers arrived at her house at approximately 2 p.m. to notify her of the evacuation.
“One came to my door and said, ‘You’ve got to get out right now,’ and they helped me get up to the road,” she said.
Turner praised the efforts of the officials who were on the scene that day, saying that they helped her contact her daughter and even carried her son’s dog to the road for her.
In addition to the evacuations, the railroad lines had to be shut down while the fire was being tamed.
Ultimately, no injuries were reported and no property was damaged. Jacobs said that the fire was officially marked under control at 5:50 p.m. and that crews were finally able to clear the scene shortly after 9 p.m., more than seven hours after receiving the initial call. The Department of Forestry is continuing to monitor the situation on the ground.
He also discussed the importance of following the statewide burn law, which goes into effect on Feb. 15 each year and continues through April 30. During that time, fires are prohibited until 4 p.m. each day, and all fires started after 4 p.m. must be reported to the county emergency communications center at (540) 672-1234.
Jacobs said that that the law is due to the combination of high winds and low humidity this time of year, which make it easier for still-dormant vegetation to catch fire and spread quickly. The law is especially important after a mild winter, like the one this year in Central Virginia, because the lack of snow exacerbates already dry conditions.
Jacobs also said that citizens should avoid starting a fire within 300 feet of any woodline or structure, keep a source of water handy, stop adding fuel before midnight and always stay with a fire until it is completely finished.
Residents with questions regarding fire safety are encouraged to call the Orange Volunteer Fire Company at (540) 672-1553 or Orange County Fire & EMS at (540) 672-7044.