EUREKA, S.C. - For South Carolina Forestry Commission Warden Glen Fulmer, Thursday was another day in the trenches.
After digging a trench around a 3-acre brush fire with his John Deere fire suppression dozer the previous day, Mr. Fulmer walked the path he plowed, checking for flare-ups in the blackened, still-smoldering wooded area on Willis Road, a remote dirt track in northern Aiken County.
"From now on out until March or April, we'll be seeing a lot of these," Mr. Fulmer said.
With dead vegetation, low humidity, and occasional strong winds, firefighters are routinely responding to brush fires this time of year. According to the South Carolina Forestry Commission, there are about 5,000 to 6,000 wildfires in the state each year, one of the highest rates in the nation. The peak time is from January to mid-April.
The Eureka Volunteer Fire Department responded to this blaze, believed to be caused by an errant cigarette tossed into a small stand of pine trees. Brush fires such as these present unique challenges to firefighters, said Chief Charles Cato.
"They're more difficult to contain because of the open area, and with a 2- or 3-acre fire it's almost impossible to get a hose line to the back of it," he said.
That's when forestry officials, with their heavy fire suppression equipment, get the call.
In Aiken County this time of year, there are about two or three brush fire calls every day, county communications dispatch officials said. The city of Aiken, with its three all-wheel-drive "brush trucks" on duty, responds to about 15 calls a month in the peak season, Lt. Brian Brazier said.
"The numbers do go up this time of year," Lt. Brazier said.
In a sprawling county of 1,100 square miles, volunteer fire departments see the majority of the wildfire calls. Clearwater Fire Chief James Richardson says recent dry days have created "prime conditions for a brush fire."
"I'd rather fight five house fires than a wildfire," he said. "They just wear you slap out. You've got to chase them."
Forestry officials say most brush fires start out with burning debris that gets out of hand. Property owners are required to call the state Forestry Commission for permission to burn, and are advised to have a garden hose handy if things get out of control. It's best not to burn at all on windy days, said Bath Volunteer Fire Department Sgt. Kenneth Holley.
"People won't pay attention and the wind'll come up and just carry it off," Sgt. Holley said.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has its own restrictions, though fire officials say they're often ignored. Debris fires are supposed to be burned no less than 1,000 feet away from public roads and homes. The department relies largely on residents' complaints to enforce their regulations.
"A lot of people are not aware of them,"said Myra Reece, the district director for the agency.
With the rains of last spring and summer, Aiken County has actually seen a drop in the number of brush fires, according to Forester Tom Suit, who works out of the Barnwell office of the South Carolina Forestry Commission. Though the county averaged about 300 wildfires a year in severe drought conditions, the number has been down to about 150 in recent years, he said.
Steven Abbott, the Georgia Forestry Commission's chief ranger for Columbia County, said significant rainfall from January through August kept the county's wildfire numbers down last year. Without extraordinarily wet conditions, Columbia County averages between 30 and 60 wildfires a year, he said.
Even with wet weather, "the potential's always there," he said.
In Aiken County, New Holland resident Pat Maroney spent a sleepless night last week with an eye out for flickering embers at his rural Gooseneck Road home.
He lost several storage sheds and saw about two acres surrounding his home blackened when an electrical short in an outdoor freezer sparked a fire Wednesday afternoon. He suspects a rodent gnawing a cord started the conflagration.
"The way the wind was whipping, that fire did a tremendous job on the property," he said. "The fire burned all the way to our house's foundation. I guess the good Lord was trying to tell me something."
Here are the most common causes of brush fires:
Ideal brush fire conditions:
Source: South Carolina Forestry Commission