Fires Flare in a Dry Forest

By Toni Waterman

April 12, 2012

Brimfield State Forest. View larger map.

BRIMFIELD, Mass. — Dry weather and high winds have firefighters battling brush fires throughout the Northeast. The about 4,000 residents of Brimfield, between Worcester and Springfield, have plenty to fear.
It’s the perfect combination of all the worst ingredients: toppled trees, dry gusts of wind, pine needles parched and brittle. Brimfield State Forest has become a forest-sized fireplace.
“In these conditions right now, it wouldn’t take much more than a cigarette butt and you could get this pile to start burning and burning rapidly,” said Dave Celino, chief fire warden of the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
But it wasn’t a cigarette that set parts of the forest ablaze the week of April 2, threatening homes already ravaged by last year’s tornado. Celino said it was a legal, permitted fire pit. It’s something that wouldn’t have been such a problem a year ago when a dense forest kept winds weak and vegetation moist.
“Then June 1, 2011, the tornado hits and did this obvious damage,” said Celino. He looked out over acres and acres of downed, dried out trees. “We actually lost 100 percdent of the forest canopy. All of this fuel here that’s on the ground is now unshaded. We’re talking about fuels that are super, super dry." He snapped a twig to illustrate its aridity. "This is what we call very receptive to fire ignition.”
And the fire threat isn’t contained just to Brimfield. Edward Lambert is the commissioner of the Department of Recreation and Conservation. He said a nearly snowless winter and a moderate draught have left much of the state poised for a potentially fiery summer. Flames have already flared in Randolph, Saugus and Worcester.
With “that lack of snow pack and the dry season that started back in November, the winds now — the dry Canadian winds that are coming down — are really creating what is for us the highest fire hazard season in about 10 years," Lambert said.
Worse yet, the fire season started about 2 months earlier than usual.
To hedge the odds in Brimfield, state workers are taking the fuel for the fire away. Large machines chopped and ground the flammable tornado debris, creating a 100-foot fuel break off the road.
Lambert considered it the most practical solution to a 600-acre problem.
“We did take out about 9,000 dead trees out of Brimfield State Forest last year and in this particular phase we’re in, we’ll take about another 25 to 30 acres out,” said Lambert. By creating these fuel breaks, "if there was a burn it would only go to a certain level and protect the public.”
Lambert said it was also up to local residents to do their part to keeping the problem from getting worse.
“Folks in Brimfield and Munson and some other places really have to try to determine that to try to keep dry timber near your home in these conditions is probably not a good thing,” he said.
Still, no matter how careful people and state workers are, the threat of fire can’t be completely eliminated: The likelihood this year is just too high.
“If we flick 10 matches out there, six of them are going to start fires,” said Celino.
Not the best of odds when the season is just beginning.

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