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wildfire overview

Note: This section focuses on outdoor fires, in yards, fields or forests. For guides on structural fires, see the Fires and Fire Alarms guide.

Wildfires in the New River Valley

Most everyone has heard advice from Smokey the Bear: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” That slogan is worth remembering when camping, picnicking, or hiking. Likewise, even children learn to recognize that matches are not for play. Nevertheless, every year forests and grassland are lost to blazes from entirely avoidable, manmade much more often than inevitable, natural causes. For example, on average in the U.S. people are to blame for six times as many wildfires as lightening.

It is worth remembering, too, that outdoor fires usually don't start deep in the wilderness, but instead close to home. The most common point of ignition is the landscaping around home and campus lawns. These particularly dangerous fires most often start, too, when people are careless. An ember from a single cigarette butt or a match, a smoldering leaf pile, a firecracker, or neglected barbecue can rapidly spread and cause horrific damage.

Whether close to home or out in the woods, knowing how to prevent and respond to wildfires can greatly reduce their threat.

The New River Valley includes areas with high risk of wildfire. For example, the vast majority of Giles County is woodland. The particular type of trees, the pests that they host, ice and wind storms have added to debris on the ground, in effect, fuel awaiting ignition. Moreover, new housing continues to reach out into the countryside. This expanding “wildland-urban interface” is where wildfires are more likely both to happen and to harm residents. Wildlife habitats, timber stocks, and critical watersheds are also more at-risk.

Although giant, Western-style forest fires are apt to remain rare in the New River Valley, dozens of more frequent, smaller blazes consume significant acreage and fire-fighting resources each year. One particularly traumatic demonstration occurred in April, 2003. Despite a wet winter and spring, simultaneous fires burned a total of 242 acres on Draper Mountain in Pulaski County and on Poor Mountain in Montgomery County in a single week.

The outdoor fires that most often plague the Virginia Tech campus, however, are in mulch piles ignited by careless smokers as they walk or drive by. They cause few injuries and little damage to property, but they also cause a lot of smoke, hassle, and expense, which is all the more bothersome because these fires can be prevented.

For more information on wildfires, see: