Already, during the Spring fire season, which began February 15th, there have been several fires in Macon County. In fact, over 200 acres have been burned in the last several seasons. Most of these fires were field or brush fires that got out of hand, like the one last fall that cost J. C. Austin of Lafayette his life. Spotting the fire from his home, he drove to his bee farm a few miles down the road to save his bees. In the process he was severely and morbidly burned. Just last week, 12 acres burned. Newberry says it looked like it was set on purpose, but the cause is still under investigation. Set in a field, fires can quickly burn out of control if the ground is dry enough and move into the surrounding woods. During the summer months, the ground is kept moist by tree shade, but from October to May, the trees are often leafless and the forest ground dries out, making it vulnerable to fire. It is common practice in the county to burn fields and brush to clear them or prepare them for planting. Hunters occasionally start small fires to drive game into a clearing so they can be killed. Many homeowners light their gardens on fire to clear winter growth and weeds. And, it is a common practice in Macon County to burn debris from construction projects, despite state fire laws which make it illegal to do so.
State regulations allow only natural substances such as leaves, limbs or untreated lumber to be burned. Anything man-made or altered may not be burned without risk of a fine and possibly a misdemeanor or felony charge. Brush, leaves, grass and untreated lumber may be burned from October 15 to May 15th with a permit and without a permit from May 15th to October 15th.
About 25 fires occurred last Spring in Macon County. An equal number occurred during the Fall fire season. At least half of these fires, according to Newberry, were set by debris burners and went from a burn barrel or field into the woods.
The Forestry Division has a number of pieces of literature on safe debris and outdoor burning safety. Open burning guidelines are available from TDEC. Additionally, the Forestry Division broadcasts daily fire weather reports from October 15 to May 15. The reports are made public on Lafayette's WLCT radio station or may be received by phone (at 666-4111). Fire weather reports are based on data from the outdoor weather station located at the Division of Forestry in Lafayette. It monitors wind speed and measures rainfall and air humidity 24 hours a day and generates hourly status reports which are sent to District headquarters in Cookeville as well as Area headquarters in Carthage. There also is a aerial surveillance plane which flies regularly over Macon County in search of fires.
In a fire, human and animal life, homes, barns, livestock, machinery, and vehicles can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. Quick response is absolutely necessary. We are fortunate in Macon County to have not only the Forestry Division fire fighters, but also the volunteer firefighters in Willette, Red Boiling Springs and Lafayette. These men and woman work in concert with each other. For example, although city fire departments usually are called to respond to a structural fire, they often call the Division of Forestry fire fighters for help. While the volunteer fire fighters work to put out the structure fire, the forestry fire fighters work to create a dirt line around the perimeter of the structure fire, either by hand or with their 350 John Deer Crawler bulldozer, to prevent the fire from reaching the woods. it's a team effort. Newberry says, "We are very fortunate to have the volunteer fire departments in our area. They are trained and highly qualified."
Thus far into the Spring fire season, it has been fairly wet, according to Newberry. Let's hope it continues and residents use care both in starting and supervising fires.