MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) — A statewide burn ban continues to be in effect in Alabama. The drought has left the region dry and susceptible to wildfire, which in turn has kept local and volunteer fire agencies very busy.
“It has been non-stop whether it’s a brush fire or a neighbor with a concern,” said Moores Mill Volunteer Fire Department (MMVFD) firefighter and Public Information Officer, Ethan Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald told News 19 that they have received a higher-than-usual number of calls since the start of November. He said the calls have been a mix of actual fire calls and calls from concerned neighbors worried about their neighbors burning.
“We are well over 20, probably going into the 25/30 range of field fires and smoke investigations,” Fitzgerald said.
He told News 19 that the MMVFD has responded to about 10 “significant” grass and brush fires since the start of November.
Fitzgerald said it is extremely important that people heed the burn ban and don’t burn yard debris right now. “Just do not do it,” he said.
However, he does encourage people to call in any concerns. He said the department has been issuing citations for illegal burning during the burn ban.
“We don’t consider ourselves the fire police, but we are actively writing tickets,” he said. “We’re serious.”
Illegally burning during a burn ban can come with serious consequences including a hefty fine and/or jail time, according to Governor Ivey’s declaration.
Fitzgerald said one factor that is keeping MMVFD and other fire departments on their toes is leaves. A common practice in more rural parts of Madison County is for people to burn yard debris like leaves, rather than bag them up.
However, right now leaves pose a risk of fire due to being so dry.
“The smallest little escaping ember could cause a significant amount of damage,” Fitzgerald said.
Another challenge facing Moores Mill and other local volunteer fire departments is staffing and equipment shortages.
“It would not take much for there to be a situation where we’re sitting there saying ‘What do we do?'” Fitzgerald said. “We’re always going to try and make it work but if we had two to three or four fires, which I’m telling you that could happen right now, that could happen today, we would have to be hitting the phones up and making calls [to other agencies].”
He said the ongoing staffing shortage poses a big public safety risk in that part of Madison County.
“The reality is if your house catches on fire from a brush fire and I’m already on two other ones… we can’t just pack up and leave that fire,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think people in the county understand the crisis point we’re in when it comes to funding, people, and growth.”
The Moores Mill area, primarily off of Moores Mill Road in Madison County, has experienced a large growth in housing developments, and subsequently population, in recent years. While the number of people in the region has grown, Fitzgerald says the amount of available equipment and volunteers have not kept up.
Since MMVFD is a volunteer organization, they already have a smaller staff than agencies like Huntsville Fire & Rescue. Fitzgerald told News 19 that while they have around 30 volunteers on staff, they have “around 10 to 15” active volunteers.
He said a lot of volunteers are “burnt out.”
The department has one main fire engine and it recently replaced an aging brush vehicle with a new brush vehicle.
Fitzgerald said the brush vehicle is crucial for fighting grass and brush fires in areas where they can’t bring their main engine. He said a second brush vehicle would be great news for the department.
The Moores Mill Volunteer Fire Department is currently fundraising for additional equipment. You can donate by visiting their website.