Firefighters from eight jurisdictions in Hampton Roads left Thursday to assist with a raging wildfire in Rockbridge County in the western part of the state. Thirty-two firefighters from York, Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth were deployed under a statewide mutual aid request from Rockbridge. Virginia Beach firefighters also took two brush trucks and a tanker truck. Chesapeake sent a small transportation bus, a large equipment truck and a firefighter rehab truck. Approximately 2,665 acres are burning in western Rockbridge County and eastern Alleghany County. Dry conditions and gusty winds have allowed the fire to spread rapidly in recent days, consuming a total of more than 20,000 acres. The Virginia Department of Forestry said the fire, which is in an area called Rich Hole, grew by 1,506 acres between Tuesday and Wednesday. Portions of east and westbound Interstate 64 in those localities were closed earlier this week due to the fire. A separate fire in the nearby Alleghany Tunnels has grown to nearly 7,000 acres. Newport News Fire Battalion Chief Steve Pincus said the challenge for firefighters in Rockbridge is its location in a remote mountainous area. He said it can be challenging in that type of environment to get firefighters and equipment in to directly attack the fire.
Pincus said firefighters are likely using a combination of tactics to control the fire, including creating a fire line around the active areas to try to keep the fire from spreading by clearing out trees, plants and debris. He said the U.S. Forestry Service is using helicopters to make water drops and some firefighters are attacking the fire on the ground with hand lines. Similar dry and windy conditions have recently put Hampton Roads at risk for brush fires. This week several jurisdictions in Hampton Roads including Newport News and York County have been under fire warnings from the National Weather Service. Brush fires are often caused by discarded cigarettes. Pincus said dry conditions make discarding cigarettes in bushes or flower pots very dangerous. He said Newport News has had issues in the past with cigarettes put in flower pots with dry debris catching fire and spreading to decks and patios. In 2010 a home on Mayland Drive suffered extensive damage after smoking materials were left in a flower pot on a screened in porch.
A fire last week at the United Jewish Community Center was caused by a discarded cigarette on the roof of the building. Pincus said even though ground conditions didn’t play a factor, windy conditions could have helped fan and spread the flames. “It is really important people discard smoking materials appropriately and make certain they are extinguished to the point of putting water on it to make sure it’s out,” Pincus said. While large wildfires are unusual in Hampton Roads, brush fires are common. They can range from a small area of several square feet to multiple acres. “Nobody is spared from brush fires,” said county forester Billy Apperson. “Right now everything’s dry. There’s a very elaborate formula to determine how dry conditions are but you know how dry the woods are when you walk through them and it sounds like you’re walking through a bowl of corn flakes. That’s dry.” York Fire & Life Safety Capt. Paul Long said York County dealt with multiple brush fires last year that burned several acres including five acres on Richneck Road. Gloucester also battled multiple brush fires last year. One fire in the Jenkins Neck and Maryus areas of the county consumed 200 acres.
On Monday, York County firefighters battled a barn fire on Tinnette Drive in Tabb where the 1,200-square-foot structure was fully engulfed in flames. Long said dry hay inside the barn along with steady wind and dry ground conditions made it easy for the fire to spread rapidly. Because of the windy conditions, firefighters stayed at the structure into the night extinguishing hot spots to keep the fire from spreading. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Larger fires are rare in Hampton Roads, but are possible. Pincus said there are wooded areas along I-64 in the northern part of the city where there is a lot of brush that could be susceptible to a larger scale wildfire similar to the one that burned last year in the Dismal Swamp. He said that like the Dismal Swamp fire, that area of Newport News is at risk for a low burning fire that spreads underground. “That’s not typical in this area but there is potential for that to happen,” he said. In York, Long said, many homes back up to wooded areas where wildfires could be an issue. He said keeping the immediate area around a home clear of debris, hanging tree limbs or dry materials like firewood helps reduce the risk of a wildfire spreading to the structure.
Apperson, who is also a longtime member of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department, said just because more developed areas like the jurisdictions in Hampton Roads don’t have large swaths of undeveloped land, doesn’t mean a large scale wildfire can’t happen. “Newport News Park could burn very easily,” he said. “There are subdivisions in Williamsburg with front yards totally covered with leaves that could catch fire and quickly spread. Once the fire gets going, houses and woods are the same things to the fire.”