Woodlands and parks in Virginia and Maryland, stricken by two months of drought are powder-dry and erupting into numerous forest fires as U.S. and state authorities maintain an alert and look to the skies for help.
Some fires on the Shenandoah National Park's Old Rag Top Mountain and in White Oak Canyon there, have been burning for two weeks. Only a half-inch rain fall would extinguish them according to park spokesman.
With a zero percent chance of rain in the mountains in the immediate forecast, the hanardous dry conditions are likely to worsen. What's more the prospect of thousands of Virginia hunters entering the woods this week as hunting seasons open, make the prospect more ominous, forestry officials say.
The 14-county Northern Piedmont Forestry District, which includes Fairfax Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties, is more fire-prone now than it has been in a quarter-century, according to Milton Morris, assistant district fire chief.
At least 43 separate fires involving 260 acres have broken out in the area during the past 20 days, Morris said.
A Maryland forestry official said last night that there has been "a rash" of small fires in woods across that state, but none of the fires have been as serious as those in Virginia.
The Virginia Division of Forestry uses a point system of zero to infinity to measure the combustibility of the woodlands and rural areas it momitors with 70 considered to be hazardous. As of yesterday, the division had rated conditions at 112. The next highest rating in the memory of those working in the division was a 90, recorded in 1963.
All available forest firefighters in the district have been placed on alert and a plane is surveying the area regularly for smoke, said Morris. He characterized the situation as "very critical."
The Shenandoah National park backcountry camping permits have been indefinitely suspended because of the drought and camp fires have been forbidden at all picnic sites. Smoking is permitted only in cars and in buildings a park spokesman said. Only Big Meadows campground is open to campers, he said.
Old Rag Top Mountain, the scenic its jagged escarpment, has been 3,263 foot high mountain named for smoldering continuously since Oct. 21 and periodically erupts into open flame.
A crew of 25 park forest firefighters have been posted at the mountain around the clock to monitor the fire and check its spread, a park spokesman said. More than 400 acres of the mountain have been scathed by the fire.
Although park spokesman say the threat of a major blaze is real, most fire have been restricted to the duff, a mixture of leaves and deteriorating vegetation on the forest floor.
O. L. Long, a Virginia forest warden, said forestry officials believe it would be unfair force hunters to curtail their activities because of the fire hazard. He said he was hopeful hunters would exercise caution in the woods.