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Keeping Small Fires From Becoming Large Blazes

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WILSON COUNTY — The fire in the Florida Everglades has now burned more than 155,000 acres. There is still a curtain of dark smoke in South-Central Florida and walls of orange flames are visible for miles.

But, the fire is contained to a well-defined area. Firefighters plan to drop ping-pong ball-size fire starters to set off a controlled burn.

North Carolina firefighters would normally be on their way south to help in Florida, but not this time.

Because parts of the state are so dry, fire crews are staying at home.

Everyday, theN.C. Division of Forest Resourcesranks the seriousness of fire from one to seven, seven being the highest risk of fire. Over the past few weeks, the area has been in the three to five range.

While they say they do not expect to see anything like what is happening in Florida, with the area being as dry as it is, a small fire can easily get out of hand.

For forest rangers in North Carolina, another day with low humidity and zero rainfall is bad news.

"I would advise the general public to use caution whenever burning. I would say we are more in a cautionary mode than we are in an extreme dry situation," said Wilson County Ranger Oscar Creech.

AChatham County firethree weeks ago shows how quickly a fire can get out of control and endanger homes. Winds turned a small blaze into a raging brush fire.

March and April are almost always dry, but this year, rainfall levels in some places are nearly 6 inches lower than they should be.

Wooded areas are especially at risk. Dry leaves and branches left over from last fall litter the forest floor.

"The forest floors are still dry. The humidity is still low. The winds are still erratic. We are, by far, not out of the woods yet," said C.D. Thompson, assistant Rocky Mount district forester.

While fires can start naturally, most are started by people, including controlled burns that get out of hand or cigarettes that are thrown out of cars.

Rangers say people can cut the risk by using common sense. People should clean up the area and get whatever tools they need before they burn. And, people should never leave a fire unattended.

"Winds may pick up and blow a spark from your fire into an unburned area, and this is where you are going to have a wild fire," said Thompson.

The seriousness of the situation typically goes away in a few weeks as more leaves start to form a canopy in the woods that keeps the sunlight out.

Rangers say if you are planning to do any controlled burns now, put it off until later.