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Fires called suspicious

November 27, 1998|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A combination of extremely dry weather and a string of suspicious fires in Jefferson County has officials worried.

The first suspicious fire was reported about 10:30 p.m. Thursday night, when about 40 bales of hay off Keyes Ferry Road caught fire, said Independent Fire Co. Chief Ed Smith.

The bales, which were over six feet high, were located over a main distribution line belonging to Allegheny Power Co., Smith said.

Several farmers helped in the battle by moving the burning bales with tractors to another area so they could be broken up and extinguished, said Smith.

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Firefighters were on the scene nearly five hours and used about 48,000 gallons of water to douse the fire, which occurred on Southerly Lane, Smith said.

About 4 a.m. Friday, firefighters were called to a brushfire along W.Va. 9 east that was suspicious, said Smith. The fire, behind Integrated Health Services nursing home, burned about a 50-foot by 50-foot area that contained brush, old furniture and other debris, Smith said.

A fire last Wednesday near an abandoned quarry in Kearneysville is also labeled as suspicious, Smith said.

The suspicious activity, combined with the "tinderbox" conditions, has officials worried about the fire threat this weekend, when more hunters are expeced to be in the woods and people in their yards doing work.

"People need to be aware. It's extremely dangerous," said Berkeley County Office of Emergency Services Director Steve Allen.

Gov. Cecil Underwood has banned all outdoor burning, and officials are citing people who start fires, said Allen. The penalties for burning range from $25 to $300 plus court costs, Allen said.

Despite the ban, Allen said people continue to be careless. Allen said he has noticed people continuing to pitch cigarette butts out car windows, and burning leaves in their yard.

There were two brush fires in Marlowe on Friday and firefighters responded to Bernice Avenue in Martinsburg where a man was burning leaves, Allen said. Burning leaves from the fire blew into a pile of leaves in a neighbor's yard, starting another fire, said Allen.

Officials say the dry weather is the worst they've seen in decades. The Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers are so low that they are exposing debris in the river beds that has not been seen in 30 years, making nagivation difficult for boaters, said John Powell, ranger at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

In Cumberland, Md., the level of the Potomac River is 2.19 feet, just shy of the lowest level on record, which is 2.16 feet set in 1943, said Andy Woodcock, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

And to make matters worse, Woodcock said there is no sign of rain in sight. "I don't see anything really through Wednesday. We're just in a terrible dry pattern now," said Woodcock.

Smith said it is so dry that streams firefighters normally use to fight fires are drying up.

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