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'Burn boss': Stray ember lit Cumberland wildfire

Posted February 23, 2011
Updated February 24, 2011

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— A wildfire that charred about 800 acres of woodland in Cumberland County might have started with a state-approved controlled burn, a state-certified forest manager said Wednesday.

Marshall Hartsfield is what the timber industry calls a "burn boss." He's been overseeing controlled burns for 26 years, he said.

About a week before flames erupted south of Cedar Creek on Monday, Hartsfield prepared the recently logged land adjacent to Privateer Farms for a "burn down," making way for a new crop of long-leaf pine trees.

"What the burn down does is knock out the perennial vegetation that competes with the trees. They actually need fire," Hartsfield said.

He tried to do his burn on the previous two weekends, but the ground was too moist, the forester said. Conditions on Feb. 15 seemed just right – cool and calm.

Hartsfield said he always remains on site after a burn "until it's safe or if it rains," but on Monday, as he and his crew were putting sand on hot spots, gusty winds kicked up an ember. The fire caught on so quickly, Hartsfield said, that he was powerless to stop it.

"I left it for a little while, came back and saw it had jumped the line. Unfortunately, it got into that swamp," he said, adding that the swamp's flammable underbrush fueled the blaze.

cumberland fire Controlled burn may be cause of Cumberland wildfire

In accordance with state law, Hartsfield submitted a plan to the state Division of Forest Resources and a for a permit before the burn. A forest service spokeswoman said high winds can sometimes be helpful to a controlled burn, though they do up the risk of fire spreading.

"In some situations, you need wind to carry it through, especially in standing timber," said Hannah Thompson-Welch.

Privateer Farms owner Sharon Valentine said she's working with state officials and conservation groups to convert the land, which sprawls across 6,000 acres near the Bladen County line, into a preserve. She questioned why the state would approve a controlled burn during a drought.

"I think that we've got to be very aware that it's not just drought conditions which we're in, but actual wind conditions," she said.

Hartsfield said he regrets that the fire got out of control but said most of the trees in the fire zone survived and much of the brush in the area was cleared by flames, which will help the long-leaf pines thrive.

"(The area) is not devastated. I don't think we have much timber loss in that swamp," he said.

The fire is still burning, but authorities said it's 100 percent contained and has not grown in size. Flames that were raging through the forest Monday were only about a foot high Wednesday, creeping along through the swampy area.

State forestry officials have not confirmed that the controlled burn started the fire, and it's not clear whether anyone will face charges or fines.

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  • angusray Feb 24, 2011

    Well said fusiformrust, I know Marshall very well and have worked with him on numerous controlled burns in Cumberland and Harnett counties. Marshall is as good as they come not only as a forester but as a human being and conservationist. Things happen sometimes and we don't always have total control. In my book he is still the best in the business!!!!

  • Bring on the 4 Dollar Gas Feb 24, 2011

    A "stray ember" did it. Right. Good thing you can't count on these 10 and 20% chances of rain to save us. Once again it won't rain enough to wash the brine off the highways, however wral wants you to keep believing that someday it will rain again. Just not in our lifetime. Add a little hope forecasting and just maybe we'll hear about a stray shower on the coast sometime later this year. Until then people with concerns better clear all dry brush around their homes and if you have a wooden fence you better take it down. Matter of fact, best thing to do would be to pour brine all over your home. According to the DOT brine will save us from everything.

  • lauraleigh Feb 24, 2011

    This is NOT uncommon; I live near state wildlife property and you can bet your bottom dollar that the controlled burns will be done on windy days. And there's no prior notice of the pending burns, so people who have respiratory problems exacerbated by the smoke are stuck.

  • davidbh61255 Feb 24, 2011

    Didn't the first response from "officials" say it was probably a cigarette?? And come to find out this guy had a burn permit??

  • outback1967 Feb 24, 2011

    "Hartsfield said he regrets that the fire got out of control" Fire...Conrol??? A set fire in the woods in windy conditions and we're surprised the fire got out of control..why? Mankind is only deluding himself when he thinks that he can control the forces of nature...
    Click to view my profile Vietnam Vet

    thanks for your service and all that, but please do not make ignorant comments when you don't know all the facts.

    talk about an ignorant comment...Vietnam Vet put this clown in his place....good job Vet!!!!!!!

  • MECU0905 Feb 24, 2011

    They planned and did the best they could, and then the wind picked up, stuff happens. Thank you for dealing with the fire so quickly and effectively. Things could have been much worse without their dedication.

  • fusiformrust Feb 23, 2011

    When Hartsfield started his controlled burn... a week before there was excessively windy conditions, he and his company, myself included, had no problem with the way the fire behaved. The burn that was planned was executed with no incident. The problem arose when no rain came and wind gusts of 30+mph did. So mr. Nam Vet... thanks for your service and all that, but please do not make ignorant comments when you don't know all the facts. I would not belittle your involvement in Vietnam, because I was not there. Please give those of us in the forestry industry the same respect.

  • fusiformrust Feb 23, 2011

    To answer that question, one must ask another question. "What was actually damaged?" The Privateer Farm woodland that was burned did not have a lot of timber value. Not a lot of value was lost, to put it another way... more was gained by the burn ecologically and monetarily. Progress Energy did lose a few wooden power line poles but those same wooden poles have been gradually replaced with metal structures for some time now. Some Progress Energy customers did temporarily lose power. The N.C. Forest Service had to show up and contain the wildfire. Their comp-time was well earned and their equipment was greatly needed and appreciated. Thank you for your service, gentlemen.

  • Fuquay Resident Feb 23, 2011

    We do, one way or the other.

  • Vietnam Vet Feb 23, 2011

    "Hartsfield said he regrets that the fire got out of control" Fire...Conrol??? A set fire in the woods in windy conditions and we're surprised the fire got out of control..why? Mankind is only deluding himself when he thinks that he can control the forces of nature...

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