Deadwood sparks concern over forest fires

County considers establishing a working group to manage Vineyard woodlands and reduce fire danger.

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Dukes County Commissioners are looking to form a collaborative group of land management organizations in an effort to mitigate the dangers of forest fire on-Island.

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.”

11 COMMENTS

  1. It’s ridiculous that Island townspeople can’t collect deadwood from the forests! Concerns about liability keep many useful solutions to Island problems from being implemented. Enough already!

    • I remember going into the State Forest here 40 years ago during a state approved program allowing people to cut and collect firewood. Now, considering the cost of firewood, this would be such a great help to those of us who heat our homes with wood. Sadly, we’ve become such a litigious society that the State’s reluctance is completely understandable. Is there a way to make this happen again?

      • Dana– I am the holder of permit # 23 ( i think) .
        I haven’t cut anything there in years– Is that great program really over ?

          • I took a chord out around 2005 ,- the last time i did that was no earlier than that. of course , you are correct– that covers 3 decades..
            That kind of program is needed more than ever.

    • “Firewood” is not a significant fire danger. The “slash” left behind after harvest is.

      How many people who have harvested firewood in the State Forest have hauled out their slash?

      • Albert– when i cut wood under this program, I was told where to cut, and when. i went to a specific spot, all the trees for harvesting were marked with a specific color paint. The idea was to widen the fire lanes and reduce the phenomenon of “crowning” during intense fire events. I was instructed to reduce the slash to under 6 ft lengths. This provided habitat for a variety of animals. It also accelerated the time frame in which this material would decompose and provide nutrients for the next generation of forest dwellers.

  2. I would hope these “officials” who have legitimate concerns, remember to involve also a Natural Heritage Program Permit this time before implementing any sort of plan that could impact endangered species habitat which nearly all of the areas of fire concern lay within!

  3. Manny Estrella has been a lone voice trying to warn people about the State Forest and get the State DCR to take action for as long as I’ve been on the Island. Anyone concerned about fire danger should talk to him and make sure he is included in your discussions.

  4. First, I tip my hat (colander) to Manny– A lifetime job well done. Thank you Manny.
    Second– the liability issue is complete Bull.
    has anyone ever heard of signing a waiver ?
    You can’t go downhill skiing without signing one.
    Unless the town has installed some hazard that will cause the tree you are cutting down to fall on you, what would the issue be ?
    If you cut your own leg off with your own chain saw, that’s your problem. I don’t care where you are.
    Third– speaking of liability– if people pile their brush at the edge of their property on state forest land, who gets sued when the inevitable fire comes along and burns their house down? i would suggest that the state sue the homeowner for intentionally making the fire worse , and contributing to more destruction of the forest and possibly their neighbors properties.

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