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Wilmington, New Hanover County at an "extreme fire risk"

Development of forest fire
Dmytro Gilitukha/gilitukha - stock.adobe.com
The development of a forest fire.

With local drought conditions showing no signs of waning, city and county fire officials are urging caution heading into Memorial Day weekend. Current weather conditions are posing what the Wilmington Fire Department calls an “extreme fire risk.”

In the last 30 days, Wilmington has seen less than one inch of rain. Those dry conditions, in addition to above-average temperatures, are the perfect concoction for increased fire risk, and rapid-fire spread.

“We have seen a significant increase in the calls for grass fires, brush fires, and things like that.”

That’s New Hanover County Fire Rescue Deputy Fire Chief Frank Meyer, speaking at a Tuesday press conference with Wilmington Fire Chief Buddy Martinette. Meyer’s observation is on par with what the state is seeing as a whole — according to the North Carolina Forest Service, there have been more wildfires in NC this year, than all of 2020.

“Last year, we had about 2,300 wildfires across the state, and this year, we’ve already exceeded that number by more than 200 wildfires."
David Lane, State Forester with the North Carolina Forest Service

In light of this and the current weather conditions, NCFS issued a burn ban for 26 counties, including New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender. That burn ban is in effect until further notice. Details regarding New Hanover County’s ban can be found here.

See related: Persisting drought conditions bring burn bans, water conservation alerts to the tri-county region

“We are asking people to be extra vigilant right now,” says Fire Chief Martinette. “It only takes a small spark for a fire to start while weather conditions are so hot and dry.”

Open burning is never allowed in the city limits of Wilmington, per city ordinance. But even with New Hanover County’s burn ban in place, using fire for cooking is still permitted. Chief Martinette points out that with Memorial Day cookouts expected this weekend, improperly disposed charcoal is a concern.

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Hannah Breisinger
New Hanover County Fire Rescue Deputy Fire Chief Frank Meyer, and Wilmington Fire Department Fire Chief Buddy Martinette, speaking at a Tuesday, May 25, 2021 press conference.

Also a concern is spring planting season, and Wilmington’s higher density urban layout:

“Many of our multifamily dwellings have combustible materials on the outside of the structures. That's in the form of vinyl siding.

When you take into account that people normally put pine straw all down in their flowerbeds, and then they come out and discard cigarettes or any sort of cooking material, the straw catches on fire. It gets into the vinyl siding, and then we have a full-blown multifamily structure fire. So, a lot of potential to lose lives.”

County and city fire officials are asking the public to be mindful when disposing of cigarette butts, or other flammable items. They should never be thrown on the ground or road, in a dumpster or trash can, or in landscaping or potted plants.

And if you ignite a fire or see one, don’t try to put it out yourself, says Chief Martinette. Call 911. And as always — stay conscientious, and stay safe, heading into the holiday weekend and beyond.

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.