A wildfire like one that torched 5,000 acres in Edgartown in 1946 could happen again on Martha’s Vineyard.
At a forum Wednesday at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Jo-Ann Taylor, a planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, told those gathered the threat is real. “People think of California wildfires — like it could never happen here, but as recently as 1957, there was a wildfire very close to us,” she said. “It burned 18,000 acres, from Carver all the way to Cape Cod Bay, which is the only reason that it stopped. And it burned pitch pine and scrub oak — sound familiar? In the first six hours, 12,500 acres burned at the rate of 53 acres a minute. So at that rate, the central part of our State Forest, that’s 4,500 acres, that would be consumed in 85 minutes.”
The Vineyard may not have the Santa Ana winds like in California, “but we’re not immune from having a bad wildfire right here,” Taylor said.
During the forum, officials from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry discussed the wildland fire threat posed by the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, and what was being done to mitigate it. Led by Chief Fire Warden Dave Celino, the officials came as part of a talk headlined by University of San Francisco Professor Barbara Sattler. Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket Counties Fire Warden Josh Nigro was among the DCR team in attendance, and spoke about wildland fire safety and planning. Chiefs from all six Island towns were in attendance.
Taylor showed the audience graphics from a fire management plan for Gosnold, which showed, among other things, where the wildland fuel loads were, at what rate wildfire would travel from certain ignition points, and how tall flames would be at certain ignition points. She said the plan also contained mitigation measures for fire crews, local planners, and other local officials. Taylor noted Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer was spearheading efforts to get a grant from FEMA to fund such a plan for the Vineyard. FEMA would assume 75 percent of the cost of the plan, the Vineyard would assume 25 percent, Schaeffer said. The plan would be a component of the 2020 hazard mitigation plan for the Island.
Nigro said plans are in place to muster Cape fire resources in the case of a large-scale event. State Police and National Guard air assets could also be called in, he said. And, if need be, air tankers from Canada could reach the Vineyard in 90 minutes.
Nigro said, upon request, DCR fire officers will come to Vineyarders’ homes for external fire safety assessments, and offer “basic suggestions,” such as how to create defensible space between homes and wildlands. For fire safety, some building materials are better than others, he said. In some towns, certain areas, he said, “require wood shake roofs and wood shake siding, which is counterintuitive to making your home fire-safe.”
As part of an overall collaborative approach to fire adaptation, Nigro said, he hopes the Vineyard will look into the subject of shakes on buildings going forward.
Speaking from the audience, Tisbury energy committee chairman Bill Straw made a bold request.
“I wonder from the fire chiefs here if they would support an Island-wide change in building codes to put forth an initiative to change all the roofs to metal?” he asked.
Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling was given the microphone, but said the question was better fielded by a building inspector, and handed the mic to Reade Kontje Milne, heir apparent to Lenny Jason in the Edgartown building department, and current assistant building inspector there.
Milne said the idea wasn’t a fire code issue but a building code issue, and was unlikely to manifest soon. “I don’t think that’s a realistic thing to expect in the near future,” she said.
Sattler, who survived a California wildfire and honed expertise on the subject, including extensive interviews with first responders and other wildland fire survivors, said it was imperative Vineyarders, no different from Californians, prepare themselves for wildfire. One essential item in doing so, she said, is a “go bag” for every family member, including pets. These bags should contain prescription medicines, batteries, a radio, toiletries, clothing, and vital documents, among other items. Copies of documents that range from mortgages to birth certificates to wills and trusts should be immediately available for travel, with the assumption not only one’s entire home will be destroyed, but the bank that may have original documents in a safety deposit box or the hospital that may have medical records physically filed may also burn, as happened in some California fires.
Insurance-wise, Sattler recommended having one’s entire home and the contents of one’s entire home, soup to nuts, photographed and digitally available for insurance recovery.
Families must know what their exit route is in the event of wildfire, and what alternate routes are should their primary route be impassable, she said.
Never leave vehicle gas tanks more than half-empty, because in the event of wildfire, pumps may be burned down, may be without electricity to operate, or may have prohibitively long lines, she said.
Families should take only one vehicle in an evacuation, she said, and should not linger for fear their pets won’t be accepted at shelters. New Red Cross policy, enacted after Hurricane Katrina, allows pets in Red Cross shelters, she said.
Celino said wildfire is not a problem isolated to any one state in the union. “The wildland fire problem is a national problem,” he said. “So it’s not just Northern California — Northern California has taken the brunt of it, right, on the ground. It’s a national issue. And so when Paradise burned, when the Camp Fire burned — actually the following year, your auto insurance rates went up.” That was a direct result of the Camp Fire, he said.
All states are “in it together,” because events like that could happen anywhere in the country, he said.
Celino said that since 2010, his office has been progressively working on mitigating the fire risk in the State Fforest. He emphasized that DCR is only a piece of the equation, and managing the problem and adapting to what he described as a landscape of pine barrens and sandplains that constitute a “fire-dependent ecosystem” that will take cooperation between Vineyard community members and local fire departments. The Vineyard chiefs, he said, have extraordinary power in a fire situation.
“What’s really important about Massachusetts, and my friends in the West oftentimes find this to be really interesting,” he said, “is that, and it’s not uncommon in New England … the local fire chief has jurisdiction over all fires, including state lands. That’s huge, right? That’s a huge responsibility.”
As to the fuel load of the forest, Celino admitted it was hefty in spots, up to seven to 10 tons per acre. “You’ve seen the fuel conditions in the Correllus State Forest,” he said. “Say Pohogonot, for instance, or over in West Tisbury, that ‘triangle’ there that sits in the corner, when we approached those units, those units hadn’t seen fire, in some cases, in over 65 years, and so the fuel loading is huge. And so it would be unsafe and irresponsible for us to go in there and think that we can start mitigating that condition and lowering the hazardous fuel conditions simply by using prescribed fire. We have to mix the tactics.” Some of those tactics, Celino said, include mechanical mowing jobs, and other times burning.
The fuel load and condition of fire lanes in that triangle, a portion of the forest near several neighborhoods that stem from Old County Road, including Oak Lane and Otis Bassett Lane, has long concerned many homeowners in the area.
Mowing comes with caveats, Celino said, because the wood left afterward doesn’t rot easily in the forest’s sandy soil and sun, and in some cases the salt air “cures” the mowed wood so it is also problematic.
“When we burn it, we get some very intense BTUs and fire behavior coming off of those units,” he said. “We may not get the 35-foot flame lengths, but we get some pretty erratic heat and fire behavior.”
Celino said his crews, who were joined by Vineyard firefighters, had success in Edgartown in May, when they burned 300 acres in the Pohogonot section of the State Forest.
At a different meeting earlier in the evening with West Tisbury selectmen and West Tisbury Fire Chief Manual Estrella III, Celino pointed out that the scrub oak and pitch pine endemic to the Vineyard are second in volatility only to a particular shrub found in California — chaparral. In May, The Times accompanied Celino at the Pohogonot prescribed burn, where scrub oak that hadn’t leafed out yet threw up tongues of flame roughly 20 feet tall.
Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore, a licensed forester, later told The Times pitch pine used to be called candlewood, due to its combustibility. Pitch, pine tar, and turpentine are derived from it, he said.
“Pitch pine is adapted to fire,” he said. From a stump, he said, the tree can resprout. “On a larger tree, the bark is very thick,” he said, offering a degree of flame protection. That thickness, he said, helps protect the cambium layer of the tree. In scorched landscapes, pitch pine seedlings handily take root, he said. Pitch pines grow “serratinous cones,” he noted, that open with fire to release seeds. Chief Celino later said pitch pines in Massachusetts may be quasi-serratinous, as they seem to have no trouble seeding without fire, but in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, this need may hold true. He described the jack pine, which can be found in Massachusetts, as thoroughly in need of heat to open its cone.
At the West Tisbury meeting, Celino took some criticism from Estrella. Estrella said the Vineyard fire tower needs to be occupied with greater frequency, and fire roads, especially in the “triangle” in West Tisbury, need better upkeep.