Prescribed burns safeguard Vineyarders, rejuvenate forest

Commonwealth teams up with Island firefighters to reduce fuel load in Edgartown.

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DCR Chief Fire Warden Dave Celino sets some of the underbrush on fire in the State Forest Saturday as part of a controlled burn. - Rich Saltzberg

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry held prescribed burns over the weekend in Edgartown in the Pohogonot portion of Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. In the process, Vineyard firefighters and Dukes County emergency manager Chuck Cotnoir learned how to safely manage a controlled wildland fire under the direction of “Burn Boss” Aaron Whiddon, DCR Chief Fire Warden Dave Celino, and other DCR personnel.

On Saturday, after some classroom instruction at West Tisbury Fire Station No. 2, and after responding to a morning house fire, firefighters set off down Edgartown–West Tisbury Road in a caravan of DCR wildland firefighting trucks and local fire apparatus, and swung off into the forest.

The woodland road around the acreage to be burned had previously been brush-cut and cleared of obstacles. Working their way around the land in opposite directions, two firefighter crews applied drip torches to the periphery of the road, scorching a 200-foot band of scrub oak, leaves, and huckleberry. Slow-rolling DCR pickups mounted with tanks and hose reels applied spray to keep the fire from straying. The utility of the blackened margin or “buffer strip” is that it acts as a fire stop, Chief Celino said, and allows firefighters to later return and burn the much larger interior with “very little chance” of the fire then escaping.

Firefighters frequently paused to listen to wind reports over the radio and fire tower reports about the shape and direction of the smoke column being generated.

Despite a preceding week of drizzle and rain, the woodland floor burned readily. When the two crews came within a few hundred yards of each other, the thin stands of scrub oak thickened to a veritable sea rolling across a swale. The crews took a short rest before igniting the scrub oak. They also moved the DCR’s largest wildland firefighting truck on scene, close to the burn site.

The scrub oak was leafless and hung with catkins. After a few flaming drizzles from a drip torch, the plants threw up 15- to 20-foot flames — a stark height increase from earlier burning.

Chief Celino said it had been about 60 years since that swale full of scrub oak was burned or mowed, and it harbored a lot of dead wood, not easily seen from the fire road. He also said that type of oak contains a combustible oil. The fire killed off the tops of the scrub oak, but within a month, he said, green shoots will emerge below. Scrub oak, like blueberry and huckleberry, responds “very favorably to fire,” he said. He said it’s common practice for blueberry farmers to burn their fields, and the Vineyard used to undergo regularly scheduled controlled burns, a practice dating back hundreds of years.

“The use of prescribed fire in a controlled environment and mechanical mowing is part of an ongoing effort for over a decade to introduce fire in portions of the fire-dependent ecosystem in Correllus State Forest for both hazardous fuel reduction and public safety and ecosystem restoration,” he said.

“Pohogonot is a vast section of the State Forest that many people don’t recognize is state forest,” Edgartown Fire Alex Chief Schaeffer said. “There are so many different fuels and such a risk out there; I’m glad they’re helping us out.”

“The scrub oak and pitch pine fuel type of southeast Massachusetts is considered by some fire management experts to be the second most volatile fuel type in the country, second only to the California chaparral,” Chief Celino said.

In all, about 35 acres were burned Saturday. Crews returned Sunday and burned another seven acres. With the area circumscribed with a buffer strip, crews will be able to return at a later date and burn upwards of 200 acres safely, Chief Celino said.

The controlled burns are components of a National Cohesive Strategy to reduce forest fire threats, in part by making forests and other wildlands more resilient to fire. Chief Celino heads the Northeast Regional Strategy Committee of the National Wildland Fire Management Cohesive Strategy, a body that regionally collaborates on implementation of the national strategy.

Should a Vineyard wildland fire ever reach proportions that overwhelm local firefighters and nearby mutual-aid responders, the Island and the commonwealth can count on an agreement made more than half a century ago to muster help.

The Northeast Forest Fire Protection Commission is the first Fire Compact formed in the United States,” Chief Celino later emailed. “Formed in 1949 with Massachusetts being a founding state after large fires from Maine to Massachusetts pointed out the need for a multistate mutual-aid system. Today the compact includes New York, all New England states, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.”

Among the assets the commission can bring to bear are Canadian air tankers. In crown fires, fires that rip through treetops, ground crews are impotent, and air tankers are essential, Chief Celino said. Such fires generally occur in coniferous trees, but can happen in any trees under the right conditions, he noted.

“Edgartown Fire Department, as well as a number of the other Island departments, they’ve been strong partners in this process, with a specific interest in lowering the risk of potential large wildfire impacts on the surrounding communities,” Chief Celino said.

The burns offer “excellent training for the local firefighters,” he added.