Dukes County commissioners are concerned about drier weather and large amounts of deadwood increasing the potential for forest fires on Martha’s Vineyard.
For the past several years, dry plant detritus has been identified as a contributing factor in several fires, including a fire in Oak Bluffs last year that was recurring.
During National Fire Prevention Week in 2020, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs pointed out the risks of drought conditions and dead vegetation for the Island community.
At a Dukes County commissioners meeting Wednesday, Mary Jane Williams of the Dukes County Health Council shared her concerns, and discussed the potential for an alternative approach to forest management. “I am really alarmed at what exists here on the Vineyard for the potential for fire. We have a lot of pieces that are essential to do what needs to be done, but I’m not sure we have a handle on the way the State Forest looks, on the way the Sailing Camp Park looks, and on the way the Land Bank land looks,” Williams said.
She said the Island needs to have a comprehensive understanding of the management situation in our parks, forests, and other natural spaces. “If we are going to prevent a severe fire, we have to be proactive,” she added.
One solution being implemented in California, Williams said, is to allow members of the public to go into the forest and remove deadwood, which they can use for their own purposes.
But upon speaking with Martha’s Vineyard Commission climate change coordinator, Liz Durkee, Williams said she was informed that it would be “impossible” to allow people to remove deadwood from the forest, due to the potential liability of the towns.
“I think we need to examine a way to do it that removes the liability from the towns so that we can be a safe place to live,” Williams said, and suggested a waiver of responsibility that would protect Island towns from any litigation related to deadwood removal.
With housing being an ongoing issue, and the forecast of a booming summer on-Island, Williams said there are going to be people who set up camp in the State Forest and other woodland areas, “which they have always done.” This increases the risk of fire danger in those areas significantly.
Another forest management tactic being used in California that could work for the Island is a designated area where people can stay, where there is a warden or some form of authority monitoring the area to make sure everyone is being safe, Williams said.
Commission chair Christine Todd said the new State Forest superintendent, Conor Laffey, is looking into the possibility of reviving the deadwood removal program and creating waivers for people to sign.
However, Todd agreed that it is essential to encourage land management organizations to work together and create a management plan that looks at the entirety of fire-related issues on the Vineyard (among other concerns).
“We could create the possibility for someone from the Land Bank, someone from the State Forest, and someone from Sheriff’s Meadow to come together and analyze the entirety of the situation. Then we could develop a collaborative plan to be able to address the concerns of forest fire,” Todd said.
Consistent messaging around reducing the risk of forest fires is also important in addressing the long-term danger, she noted. “We talked about people who live along the border of the State Forest, and how they often clear their property and drag their limbs and leaves to the edge of the forest and create these big piles that are just tinderboxes waiting to happen under the right circumstances,” Todd said.
Commissioner Tristan Israel said the “holistic” management of forests must be a collective effort that involves regular collaboration between involved groups — a process that he has seen little of in the past few years.
He said he likes the idea of allowing the public to access deadwood, but when he posed the idea to the Land Bank years back, after a disease had wiped out massive expanses of oak trees and left them rotting on the ground, executive director James Lengyel told him he “didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” due to liability concerns.
Tristan agreed with his fellow commissioners that some kind of collaborative working group with involved land management entities will be necessary to effectively plan and be proactive in fighting forest fires. “I think we should bring these groups together and see if we can form some holistic management plan for the Island regarding our forests,” Israel said. “They are of extreme value to us.”