A red flag warning has been issued in central Pennsylvania. Here’s what it means

Update: The National Weather Service at State College upgraded the fire weather watch to a red flag warning from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday. Peak wind gusts of 40 to 45 mph and relative humidity as low as 20 percent are expected from 2 to 7 p.m. During this time, outdoor burning is not recommended, and people are encouraged to properly discard cigarettes, keep vehicles off dry grass, avoid activities with open flames and obey burn bans, according to the NWS.

West winds from 10 to 20 mph with occasional gusts of 40 to 45 mph are expected, with peak gusts occurring between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.

With a dry air mass, low relative humidity and gusty winds in the forecast, the National Weather Service in State College has issued a fire weather watch for Wednesday across much of central Pennsylvania.

Weather conditions combined with dry vegetation on the ground create an elevated risk for fire, NWS meteorologist Craig Evanego said.

“Spring is the time of year when those conditions are most common, especially before the ‘green-up’ happens,” he said.

The watch, which includes Centre, Blair, Clinton, Clearfield and Huntingdon counties, could be elevated to a warning.

At this time of year, Boalsburg assistant fire chief Greg Alters said his company tries to encourage people to avoid any type of burning. Even for residents of municipalities that allow the practice, it can take only a few stray sparks for a burn to flare out of control under these weather conditions.

That’s what Alters said happened Saturday, when the Boalsburg and Centre Hall fire companies responded to a field fire off General Potter Highway in Potter Township.

A property owner was burning a couple cardboard boxes, and the next thing he knew, the wind picked up, sparks flew, and the field caught fire, Alters said.

“It doesn’t have to be a big fire to turn into something big,” he said.

This fire was straightforward to extinguish, Alters said, as it was in a flat area where firefighters easily got their equipment in and put out the flames. Wildfires in forested or mountain areas typically are tougher to fight, Alters said.

Burning near forests also can come with a hefty price tag. If state forest land catches fire, and the person who is responsible for starting it is identified, that person foots the bill for the resources used to extinguish the blaze, Alters said.

“That’s why we try to tell people not to burn at all right now,” Alters said. “Because it’s just not worth getting into something that you’re going to need to call the fire department. Burning your trash, or whatever it is you’re burning, probably isn’t worth all of that.”

For those who decide to burn during the early spring, Rusty Schreiner, assistant chief at Alpha Fire Company, suggests first checking municipal burn ordinances to see if it’s allowed and making sure the fire is well attended and at least 75 feet from all buildings. People shouldn’t use flammable material or liquid to help start it, but they should have nearby materials — such as a good water supply, a shovel, rake and dirty — that can put out the fire, he said.

If the burn gets out of control, call the fire department, Schreiner said.

Both Alters and Schreiner said most wildfire or brush-fire calls they’ve heard this season have been cases of controlled burns that lose control. The best way to prevent that, they said, is to avoid burning this time of year.

“It creates a tremendous amount of work for the volunteers out there,” Schreiner said. “They’ve been going to these allegedly controlled burns, where people think nothing is going to happen. Then, all the sudden, it does.”

The threat of fire should ease after Wednesday as “unsettled weather” is set to bring rain into the region Thursday into Friday, Evanego said. Rain is expected early next week, as well, he said.