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Dry weather means dangerous brush fire season

Firefighters battle a brush fire at 155 Weeks

Firefighters battle a brush fire at 155 Weeks Avenue in Manorville. (April 17, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

Wildfires don't just ignite from the sun's rays -- they usually need a man-made spark to get going, and dry air and winds to help them spread, experts say.

The spark could be a flyaway ember from a cigarette or even a running car sitting on the shoulder of a road, said meteorologist Nelson Vaz at the Upton-based National Weather Service.

But Suffolk's two major brush fires this month grew out of control because conditions on Long Island have been "ideal" for a dangerous brush fire season, unofficially defined as late March and April, the transition period into a green spring, he said.

Little snow and rain fell during the winter, making the ground dry, he said. Now, the winds are not only gusty but they're Canadian land winds, which means they're dry, as opposed to damp winds that have blown over water, he said.

The lack of moisture and the drying winds have created an abundance of natural fuel -- dead leaves, dried underbrush, fallen pine needles in the pine barrens and woods, the meteorologist said.

"Just a car driving onto a shoulder -- a dry, grassy shoulder underneath a car -- there's so much heat there you can get ignition," Vaz said.

"This spring has been the ideal environment for brush fires," he said. "You should take precautions in terms of not tossing out a cigarette, anybody camping, any lighting of outdoor fires. A little ember can start a fire and on a dry day, it'll spread very quickly."

But the meteorologist said two signs of hope are on the horizon. A 60 percent chance of rain this weekend could bring an inch of rain that will dampen the tinderbox of dry brush here, he said. Also, leaves and vegetation are starting to bloom, and they carry moisture, which means they catch fire less easily than dead leaves and dry brush, he said.

"If we get an inch of rain, that will alleviate things a little while," Vaz said. "If we start seeing more of the green up, which we're starting to see with leaves budding on trees and vegetation growth, that could buy us some time. That really hampers the spread of the brush fires because they just don't have the fuels anymore."

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