Karen Lothrop, the sole Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) firefighter on-Island to tend to the Manuel Correllus State Forest, has moved on, and Vineyard fire chiefs aren’t happy state officials don’t have a replacement. As has happened in the past, the Vineyard fire chiefs say they have been left to safeguard the forest — 5,300 acres of state property full of inherently dry vegetation. That forest plays a prominent role in a recent Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) wildfire plan that finds Edgartown and West Tisbury (which contain most of the forest) at extreme wildfire risk.
Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer told The Times Lothrop took a similar job in Sandwich for better pay. Chief Shaeffer didn’t begrudge her accepting a better position, and lauded the work she had done in the forest. Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz expressed much the same, that Lothrop did good work in the forest, and that gravitating to a better opportunity made sense, especially because she was commuting to the Island to do her job. Chief Wirtz pointed out the Vineyard has been enduring a drought, and the forest demands regular DCR upkeep, “otherwise bad things could potentially happen.”
Lothrop is one of many DCR forest employees who haven’t stayed on the Vineyard for very long. Relatively low pay as compared with the cost of living on the Vineyard and a lack of affordable housing are two factors that appear to challenge those who come to work in the forest, Chief Wirtz said. A bill that would allow an existing dwelling in the forest to be used to house a state employee remains parked in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Chief Shaeffer hopes the bill will be passed soon by the legislature.
West Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Pachico told The Times he found it “very disheartening” that DCR has no replacement for Lothrop.
“I think it’s awesome that all her hard work over the years has gotten her promoted to a position that is so important to have — just wish that was here on the Island,” Chief Pachico said. “Back to square one. We were just getting to the level of maintenance that was going to allow for some controlled burning in the next couple of years. I’m sure that will be delayed. We as an Island need to let the legislators know how important getting a DCR employee for the maintenance of the State Forest really is. We cannot let it be neglected any longer.”
Eight days after The Times posed questions about when a replacement for Lothrop will be installed and how the forest will be managed in the interim, DCR has yet to provide answers. A DCR spokesperson twice told The Times she hadn’t “heard back” regarding Times questions.
Chief Wirtz summed up his feelings about DCR by saying, “You’re leaving us here with nothing — nothing.”
Forest superintendent Conor Laffey, who also commutes, told The Times the forest isn’t unstaffed, and also said while he may not be an official state firefighter, he is nonetheless an experienced wildland firefighter. Laffey said he does a lot of the mowing, and actually did some areas recently in West Tisbury at the request of Chief Pachico. However, he noted the forest’s tractor is out of service presently, and in need of repair. Laffey also said he works with an assistant.