Like burnt popcorn and volcanic ash, the remains of once vibrant oak trees and nutrient-rich soil lay buried underneath fire retardant as firefighters battled one of the largest fires in Southeast Ohio's history.
Wildfires have ravaged the country for hundreds of years; many have been deadly, costly and destructive.
Climate change contributes to unprecedented fires in places like California, which had its largest wildfire ever recorded in 2020 and has fueled fires that have burned in Southeast Ohio.
According to a report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, changes in climate lead to longer active fire seasons as weather patterns create warmer and drier conditions. Although not the only factor, climate change has played a significant role.
For regions that are usually temperate and have predictable rainy seasons — like Southeast Ohio — climate change could also lengthen fire seasons in the area.
"My understanding of climate instability is that if major global weather systems shifted, then it's at least conceivable that the huge amounts of rain that we seem to be getting, that might go away, it might go somewhere else," Manring said. "It's possible that we could be in an extended drought and then given all these forests around us wildfire would be something to worry about."
Alongside climate change, weather patterns can also greatly impact how wildfires burn, where they move and their duration.
Maddy Zarembka, a senior studying meteorology and the lead forecaster at the Scalia Laboratory, said wind shifts are a big factor when battling wildfires.
"When you have that big of a wind shift, it can cause a fire to move in a different direction," she said. "So you have to make people aware — maybe the firefighters that are out fighting this fire — when that wind shift is going to happen because that can make a big impact on where the fire goes."
When wildfires burn, they release copious amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which warms the planet and contributes to climate change. At the same time, climate change is a factor that has resulted in the birth of more wildfires, creating a perpetual, disastrous cycle.
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Burn marks caused by November’s Kimble Complex Fire are visible on a dead tree on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, near Pedro, Ohio, in the Wayne National Forest.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, in Ohio, wildfires can occur at any point of the year, but many of those wildfires frequently happen during the spring and autumn fire seasons.
In Southeast Ohio, an average of about 400 wildfires occur every year, many of which are started by humans. Locally, those fires stem from campfires, debris burning and illegally started fires. Typically, wildfires in the area are small and burn less than 10 acres, and larger fires are rare.
Kyle Brooks, Wayne National Forest public affairs specialist, said that the majority of wildfires that occur in Southeast Ohio are small in size, but because of climate change, larger fires could become normal.
"Large wildfires are exceedingly rare in Southeast Ohio, with less than 1% of wildfires reaching even 100 acres in size," Brooks wrote in an email. "But while large wildfires might be rare, they do occur. Due to climate change, this pattern of wildfires is likely to change. This means we could see more — and larger — wildfires in the coming years and decades."
To help combat the increasing risk of wildfires, the Wayne National Forest Headquarters will conduct a series of several controlled burns throughout the year. Those controlled burns are named prescribed burns. They also offer opportunities for anyone interested to come along, assist and learn about the process.
Controlled burning and dispatch
One OU student, Colby Bryan, a junior studying meteorology, recently went on a prescribed burning trip along the Baileys Trail System with fire specialists from the Wayne National Forest Headquarters.
He said the trip was a unique experience and recalled how surreal the sky appeared after the burns started — an experience he'd never had before.
"It was a fun experience, going out and seeing that (the sky), it's like it was a surreal feeling," Bryan said. "When I was in the deep areas, where there's a lot of smoke and you look up in the sky, the sun had this really orange glow to it."
Prescribed burns are controlled fires that fire specialists light to restore the health of many forest ecosystems. Often executed with extreme caution and careful oversight, those fires reduce hazardous fire-starting fuels in forests, which lowers the chance of larger wildfires erupting in densely populated areas. They can also minimize the spread of plant diseases and harmful pests, remove unwanted invasive species and return proper nutrients to the soil.
When performing prescribed burns, it's important to be properly prepared and to have the right equipment. However, fire equipment can be expensive.
In March, the Ohio Department of Commerce announced a list of recipients of a fire equipment grant. The grant included 154 fire departments across 70 counties and totaled $1.3 million.
Athens County received over $20,000 in grant funding with the Athens Fire Department, Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Department and the Waterloo Township Fire Department each as recipients.
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A dead tree with burn marks caused by November’s Kimble Complex Fire is surrounded by blooming trees on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, near Pedro, Ohio, in the Wayne National Forest.
Ryan Sundberg, Wayne National Forest fire management officer, wrote in an email that the Wayne National Forest received funds that were allocated to purchasing more fire equipment and training.
"This past year, the Wayne National Forest was allocated $57,000 in preparedness funding, which covered purchases for fire equipment and fire response training," Sundberg wrote in an email. "$120,000 was allocated for prescribed fire implementation and planning."
Aside from funding allocations, Sundberg also said that typical fire response depends on a variety of factors and coordination between local fire departments in the area.
"The national forest coordinates with the Ohio Division of Forestry and local fire departments to assess and acquire resources," Sundberg wrote in an email. "The typical response time on average from when the national forest duty officer is alerted to a wildfire and when fire crews are dispatched is less than two minutes, which varies due to staffing issues and availability of firefighters to respond."
However, despite the efforts of controlled burns by fire specialists and forest managers, and an increase of funding for fire departments across the state, large wildfires still have the potential to ignite either from human disruption or severe weather conditions; especially with state and federally protected forest lands that are dangerously close to home.
Kimble Complex Fire
In November 2022, The Kimble Complex Fire ignited in Pedro, Ohio, a mere 72 miles away from Athens, 20 miles from Huntington, West Virginia and relatively close to other municipalities like Ironton.
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Telegraph Hill Road curves through the Wayne National Forest where November’s Kimble Complex Fire burned on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, near Pedro, Ohio. This photo illustration was created during the film developing process when the chemicals couldn’t reach all areas of the film due to the film touching in the canister.
The fire began as a group of many small wildfires. As one larger fire, it contributed to the burning of 1,300 acres of land in the Ironton Ranger District of the Wayne National Forest near Ohio State Route 93. The fire eventually grew in size due to warm, dry and windy conditions.
Jasmine Facun, Wayne National Forest's acting public affairs officer, wrote in an email the Kimble Complex Fire currently remains under investigation and there is no official timeframe for when the investigation will be complete.
Although caused by natural factors, man-made influences and disturbances have contributed to the spread of large, destructive wildfires.
In a news release from the United States Department of Justice, James Bartels, a former 9-1-1 dispatcher for Gallia County, was arrested in connection with the burning of 24 other fires in the Wayne National Forest.
Brooks said many fires in Southeast Ohio have ignited from human interference and occur during Ohio's spring or fall fire season.
"Almost all wildfires in southeast Ohio are started by people," Brooks wrote in an email. "Most occur during Ohio's spring or fall fire seasons, when the weather conditions are particularly dry, windy, and warm."
Brooks also said that fires are fueled by dry weather conditions that dry out different types of fuel, which can ignite with ease.
"These weather conditions dry out the fuel — all the leaves, branches, and herbaceous plants — found in forested areas," Brooks wrote in an email. "At that point, all it takes is one ignition source for a wildfire to start and easily spread. The most common ignition sources for wildfires in southeast Ohio are backyard debris fires, campfires that escape control and arson."
Practicing Fire Safety and Prevention
Ohio has an annual fire season that typically runs from March to May and from October to November when humidity levels are low and forests are especially dry.
According to Ohio Revised Code 1503.18, during the active fire season, outdoor open burning is prohibited in unincorporated areas between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The ban includes burning trash, debris and yard waste, even in a fire barrel.
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The Wayne National Forest has several systems in place to assess weather patterns that could stimulate the growth of new fires, like dispatching firefighters and monitoring active fires. Officials work in tandem with several other offices, such as several National Weather Service offices in the region and the Mid-Atlantic Coordination Center.
The Mid-Atlantic Coordination Center provides communication about wildfires and other related incidents in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. The organization coordinates the responses to wildfires in national forest areas and supports prescribed burning programs.
There is also the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS), which is a system that allows fire safety officials to evaluate a region's fire danger. In forecasting, officials look at weather patterns, topography and fuels.
The NFDRS system evaluates fire risk in several levels that range from low to extreme. A low level means that fires that start are the easiest to control and forest fuels are not ignited easily. However, at an extreme level, fires start with ease and spread rapidly and are extremely difficult to contain.
Sundberg explained the protocol and the Wayne National Forest systems in place for responding to active fire alerts, including a new program designed to improve fire detection.
"During the fire season, we send crews on patrol looking for fires," Sundberg wrote in an email." We also follow up on overhead air traffic reports on smoke spotted while flying over the Wayne National Forest. The newest tool we have utilized is the national FireGuard program. This program utilizes military satellites' capabilities to detect wildfires, and sends notifications of a wildfire in the area thus creating a response."
Besides the systems put in place by trained firefighters and operations managers at The Wayne National Forest for people unaware of how to protect themselves from wildfires, there are several ways to stay safe.
The Red Cross offers a wildfire preparedness guide with several tips on staying safe before, during and after a wildfire, including creating an emergency evacuation plan, proper cleanup efforts and how to stay healthy after environmental contamination.
Brooks recommends that people stay up-to-date with their local fire laws, follow burn bans and continue to be careful around fire.
"The first and foremost way to protect yourself from wildfires is to make sure they don't happen in the first place," Brooks wrote in an email. "Know your state and local fire laws, follow the statewide 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. burn bans during the spring and fall fire seasons, always be careful with fire, never leave fires unattended, and always put fires completely out until they are cool to the touch."