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SUNDAY, MAY 27, 2007
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Volunteers halt Piney Chapel fire 50 feet from home

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com · 340-2438

PINEY CHAPEL — With the Tennessee Valley in an “extreme” drought, it took a two-hour joint effort Saturday by three volunteer fire departments to avert disaster when a 25-acre hayfield caught fire.

The fire was on Hays Mill Road in northern Limestone County.

“They saved my house and barn, and I didn’t lose any equipment,” said property owner Wilburn Shields. “They did good work.”

According to the United States Drought Monitor, the entire central Tennessee Valley remains in the extreme drought category.

This is the second-worst of the five-level classification system the monitor uses, indicative of at least a once-in-20-year drought.

Piney Chapel Fire Chief Lance Pitts said his department and volunteers from Elkmont and Owens stopped the fire about 50 feet from Shields’ home and about 15 feet from a commercial stand of pine trees that borders the property.

“If we hadn’t got a handle on it, it was about to get ugly,” Pitts said.

He said the field is near Hays Mill and Carey roads in north-central Limestone County, less than a mile from where the Rails to Trails start.

Pitts said workers were raking hay for Shields and getting it ready to bale when either a spark from the tractor or equipment striking flint ignited the hay.

First to respond

Piney Chapel was first responder to the fire at about 11:50 a.m. with seven firefighters.

“We had an engine and brush truck, Elkmont came with a brush unit and Owens responded with two brush units,” Pitts said.

“Ladies from Elkmont’s auxiliary came and set up rehab for firefighters as we rotated in and out. Also, we had an ambulance come from Athens Limestone Hospital.

“We had about 30-personnel on the scene.”

Pitts said no one was injured seriously but that two firefighters, one from Piney Chapel and one from Elkmont, probably suffered heat exhaustion and needed attention.

Pitts said he also called two state foresters from Limestone County for an evaluation.

Pitts’ father, Gary Pitts, said he drove the pumper truck, which has a capacity of about 1,500 gallons of water.

“I kept the brush trucks supplied,” he said. “Each holds about 400 gallons and they have 4-wheel drive, which enables them to get to the tough spots. All of the departments pull together like a big family. Otherwise, we couldn’t make it.”

Extremely dry

Steve Shumway, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, said
the drought rating system
classes are abnormally dry, moderate, severe, extreme and exceptional.

“During May, we’re 3.64 inches below normal, but since March 1, we’re 10.46 inches below,” Shumway said.

“And since Jan. 1, we’re
15.59 inches below normal, showing that a drought is accumulative.

“We might have a few rainy days in a month, but add it all up, and we’re definitely in a dry period.”

Shumway said the drought is having an agricultural impact as soil moisture remains well below normal.

“It is approaching historic lows,” he said.

On Friday, the Alabama Forestry Commission put the entire state under a fire alert until further notice.

And what about the forecast?

“Dry as a bone,” Shumway said. “Our next chance of rain is Thursday night and Friday morning.”

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