Cumberland Times-News

Local News

April 23, 2014

900-acre Bear Den wildfire 70 percent contained

Fire burning atop Wills Mountain in Bedford County

CENTERVILLE, Pa. — A 900-acre wildfire on Wills Mountain in Bedford County was said Wednesday to be “the largest fire in Pennsylvania this spring season,” according to Cecile Stelter, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry public information officer.

The fire that was reportedly situated mostly on state game lands began Saturday at about 2 p.m., with initial firefighting efforts handled by the Cumberland Valley Township Volunteer Fire Department at Centerville.

Early into the fire operation assistance was obtained from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry. The Pennsylvania Game Commission sent equipment and personnel when notified of the fire.

Late Wednesday morning, Stelter said the fire, dubbed by the bureau as the Bear Den Fire, was 70 percent contained. The blaze is currently the largest wildfire in the Keystone State, where 367 wildfires have occurred since March.

“There is a line around the fire but it is not yet under control as of yet and there is internal burning. The objective now is to strengthen the fire line around the east and southeast area of the fire,” she said.

Brent McNeal, forester for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said, “The crews are experiencing rough travel due to the rocky and steep terrain. Keeping ahead of the fire has been challenging. The crews from the various agencies are working well together in a coordinated effort to contain the fire.”

The fire suppression efforts include personnel from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Cumberland Valley Township Volunteer Fire Company and the Bureau of Forestry, in addition to volunteers from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. Approximately 60 people were working on the fire Wednesday along with 15 to 20 support personnel at the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fire Department station.

No injuries have been reported during the five-day fire operation that has kept an average of 70 firefighters assigned to the fire every day.

Firefighting efforts Wednesday were complicated by winds gusting up to 35 mph. “We have had some precipitation that has slowed the rate of spread of the fire but we have also had some erratic wind behavior on the fire,” she said.

A command post has been established at the Cumberland Valley Township fire department on U.S. Route 220. Stelter is part of the Delaware incident management team in addition to serving as a public information officer.

The incident management group also includes the Susquehanna and Allegheny teams, according to Stelter.

The operation has included dropping more than 42,000 gallons of water on the fire from Saturday through Monday. Contractual air tankers from the Bureau of Forestry dumped the water in 800-gallon drops. The air tankers are contracted during the annual wildfire season by the Bureau of Forestry and are located at tanker bases in Clearfield and Luzerne counties.

Stelter said water supplies for the fire operation have been constant. “We have been able to get water and we have all the water we need. The volunteer fire departments have been very supportive in getting water and resources we needed,” she said.

At the end of daylight hours each day, firefighters were being pulled off the fire line in the interest of public and firefighter safety. “That’s our first concern,” said Stelter. “Because of the terrain and thick undergrowth and shrubby types of vegetation, we felt everyone should be pulled off the line at night.”

Wednesday’s fire operation included use of various vehicles, including dozers, two-seat ultra terrain vehicles and trucks with pumps fitted to the back of those vehicles.

Stelter voiced gratitude for the community support that has buoyed firefighters through the fire operation.

“The Cumberland Valley Township Volunteer Fire Department community has been wonderful. We cannot compliment the local community enough.

“Businesses have also stepped up to provide food and water and other resources. There has been a groundswell of support and help for us and it’s been a wonderful experience. We would rather not be here but such support has just been great. We can’t say enough about that,” said Stelter.

A “tremendous amount” of cooperation has also been evident from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, local volunteers and the Bureau of Forestry, she said.

The cause of the Wills Mountain wildfire remains under investigation. More than 90 percent of Pennsylvania wildfires stem from human activity.

“We urge residents to take extra care during outside burning. Spring is the time when we have most of our wildfires,” said Stelter.

The wildfire season in Pennsylvania continues into May.

Stelter said the name Bear Den Fire was given to the Wills Mountain fire based on an access road into the fire area. “A lot of times we assign names to fire based on the local topographical area,” she said.

Travelers using U.S. 220 between Cumberland and Bedford were reminded of the 35-mph speed limit in the area of Centerville. As fire suppression activities continued Wednesday, the possibility continued for smoky conditions and increased fire vehicle traffic in the area.

Contact Jeffrey Alderton at jlalderton@times-news.com.

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