Drought turns fields into brushfires' tinder

By Kevin Smith

Drought conditions helped fuel the spread of two brushfires in Orland Park this month.

The Orland Fire Protection District extinguished a fire last Thursday in a grassy field near 157th Street and 116th Court, after being notified of a fire in the area. Responding firefighters noticed a column of smoke west of Wolf Road coming from a burning patch of tall brush near a home.

The district deployed its brush unit to help control the spread and extinguish the fire. Orland was assisted by the Homer Fire Protection District’s brush unit. The fire was contained within 15 minutes and extinguished in about 45 minutes.

“The cause of the fire is unknown, but the extremely dry weather contributed to the spread [of the flames],” Orland Fire Battalion Chief Dan Smith said.

Previously, the district responded to a brush fire on July 7 in a peat swamp near 143rd Street and Creek Crossing Drive. The fire was contained in about 45 minutes, but crews remained on the scene for more than two hours to extinguish hot spots, Smith said.

 Firefighters have returned to the site six times since the initial blaze to respond to wisps of smoke rising from the ground due to the continuously burning peat below the surface, Battalion Chief Mike Schofield said.

“The number one contributing factor is the dryness of the area,” Schofield said. The peat has been burning at very high temperatures underground due to the lack of ground moisture, he added.

The fire in the peat bog bears similarities to a fire that took place in 1995 in nearby area where peat was burning underground, Schofield said. It took the district four months to completely suffocate the smoldering peat, he said.

The Orland Fire Protection District has been using thermal imaging cameras to identify and mark the hot spots at the surface before they ignite the brush. The district detected surface temperatures of 500 degrees at some of the hot spots, Smith said.

Crews have been returning to the site for hours at a time to dump water on the hot spots in an effort to prevent the brush from igniting, Schofield said.

No injuries were reported in either fires and there was no significant property loss aside from the loss of vegetation, Smith said.