Today marks the third anniversary of an event that still keeps Flanders fire chiefs awake at night.
On April 9, 2012, the woods in Ridge and Manorville caught fire. The blaze burned about 1,100 acres, seriously injured one volunteer firefighter and destroyed three homes and one commercial building. It was the biggest fire incident in Suffolk County since the “Sunrise Fire” that burned 7,000 acres of Pine Barrens in 1995.
The potential for disaster in Flanders is great, according to chiefs of the volunteer fire department there.
Hundreds of homes are tucked into 11,000 acres of preserved pine barrens in the Flanders Fire District, where a lack of maintenance by the government entities that own the preserved woodlands has created a dangerous situation, according to Flanders Fire Chief Joe Pettit.
A succession of chiefs of the volunteer department have lobbied the state and county to undertake basic maintenance, but nothing happens, Pettit said.
“It’s pretty much status quo,” Pettit said last week.
The woodlands haven’t burned — a natural, cyclical occurrence in the fire-dependent pine barrens ecosystem — since the 1960s. But in addition to typical conditions of the pine barrens forest floor, there are dead oak trees scattered throughout thousands of acres of the pine barrens following a massive die-off in the mid-2000s.
Two years ago, then-chief Todd Ryan worried that if a fire sparked in the Flanders pine barrens, there’s not much firefighters would be able to do to save them.
“The fire in Manorville? That was nothing. This has the potential to be far worse even than 1995,” Ryan told RiverheadLOCAL in 2013.
There is an enormous amount of fuel for what the ex-chief said he regarded as an inevitable wildfire in the district. The source of the fuel isn’t just “normal brush” or a few dead trees, he said.
The entire forest is littered with fallen oak trees and limbs. In some places, the downed tall trees, scattered every which way, resemble a child’s game of pick-up sticks.
“There’s no way we could get through this to fight a fire and protect these nearby homes,” Ryan said.
Some of the trees blocking the fire breaks — which are paths cut through the woods to allow firefighters a safe way in when there’s a wild fire — were actually felled by the government to prevent ATV riders from tearing up the woods, according to Pettit.
The fire chiefs have been demanding that the fire breaks be cleared. The felled trees present a hazard for firefighters entering the woods on brush trucks.
Chip Bancroft, chairman of the Pine Barrens Wildfire Task Force, said officials have stopped the practice of blocking fire breaks.
The State Pine Barrens Commission hired the consulting firm Land Use Ecological Services in December 2012 to prepare an assessment and inventory of the pine barrens forest, as well as perform certain maintenance services, including prescribed burns. Services under the $697,000 contract are to be performed over a five year period.
The project is moving forward, Bancroft said.
Pine Barrens Commission executive director John Pavacic said “Land Use has completed all the field work necessary to assess the fuel types and ecoological habitats.”
“They’re now doing fuel modeling,looking at the various types of fuel loads,” he said. “They will be developing recommendations and conducting prescribed burns. Some additional measures might involve putting in fire lines,” Pavacic said. “They will also be ‘limbing up’ trees, eliminating what’s known as ladder fuels,” he said. This involves trimming live tree branches that go from the ground’s surface up the tree, creating a path to the canopy.
Remediation work will be concentrated in the “buffer areas most immediately adjacent to residential areas,” Pavacic said.
“We hope to be able to have final plans ready later this year so we can conduct outreach to local fire districts,” he said.
The Flanders fire chief renewed his call for the fire breaks to be cleared right away.
“The biggest frustration is it seems like everybody just points fingers at other levels of government and other agencies,” Pettit said.
With the condition of the forest — particularly the fuel load and the impassable fire breaks — it’s hard to send firefighters into the woods to fight a wild fire.
“I just have to make sure that any decisions I make on fires protect my firefighters and residents,” Pettit said.
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