Christopher Steigerwald, state Department of Environmental Conservation forestry technician, explains how fire and chain saws help to rejuvenate the 105,000 acres of public and private lands. Overgrowth and invasive pests are constant threats to the land that serves as a vital filter for Long Island's aquifers. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

As Nathan Hudson and Christopher Steigerwald flew at 2,000 feet over Long Island’s pine barrens in a single-
engine Cessna one day in early August, the two state forestry experts became alarmed while surveying the expansive canopy of green treetops, grassy fields and scattered marshlands.

“Hey, do you see that one on the left?” Hudson later remembered saying to Steigerwald.

Hudson, a forest health specialist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, pointed out an area of pitch pines that were yellow, a discoloration that signaled probable fatal infestation of the southern pine beetle, a tiny invasive insect first identified on Long Island in 2014.

Steigerwald, a DEC forestry technician, said the flight revealed “widespread infestations kind of scattered out all across the pine barrens and on the North Fork as well. We were finding some pop up in places north of Bellport High School. We never saw it there.”

Other beetle infestations were seen in Rocky Point and near Mill Road in the Calverton-Riverhead area. “We noticed that one was pretty large,” Steigerwald said. “It was 450 trees. … And that was in the middle of a forest, so it never would have been noticed unless we did that aerial survey.”

The men mapped precise locations on electronic tablets — noting single dead trees or infestations across 100 acres — so they could saw the trees to the ground within days. Since 2014, the beetle has forced state foresters to cut down nearly 40,000 trees in the pine barrens and on the South Fork, Hudson said.

The story of the aerial survey illustrates how the pine barrens, a 105,000-acre patchwork of public and private lands that is seven times the size of Manhattan, are threatened by invasive insects and plants spurred by climate change, but also neglect that has permitted tree-stressing overgrowth and raised the risk of wildfire.

In recent years, officials have stepped up efforts to fight back and preserve this wild and ecologically sensitive area that filters rainfall and snow into Long Island’s precious pure-water aquifer. Two key strategies are to thin the overgrowth and to deliberately set fires to clear out understory plants.

Christopher Steigerwald, a state DEC forestry technician, cuts down a pine tree infested with southern pine beetle in April 2022 at the Rocky Point State Pine Barrens Preserve; the browning of pine needles and the pitch tubes on the tree's bark are both signs of southern pine beetle infestation. | Newsday Photos / Steve Pfost

Fire as a tool

The term “barrens” belies the reality of an often-lush mosaic of wildlife, bogs, forests and grasslands in eastern Brookhaven, southern Riverhead and western Southampton Towns. Inhabitants include white-tailed deer, red foxes, songbirds, red-tailed hawks, ospreys, turkeys, box turtles and hognose snakes. Pitch pine and oak trees tower over berry plants and flowering lupines and bird’s-foot violets. Visitors use the region for hiking, trail biking, bird-watching, skiing and seasonal hunting.

Recent efforts to protect the pine barrens reflect cooperation among agencies including the state Department of Environmental Conservation; the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission, an agency set up by the landmark 1993 Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act; Brookhaven National Laboratory; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and the U.S. Forest Service.

Experts say that even though the deliberate burning of select areas and the cutting of trees can seem contrary to saving the pine barrens, they are effective. They point out that the pine barrens have always needed naturally occurring fire touched off by lightning to enrich their soil, open tree seed pods and thin out the woods.

“To take fire away from this type of ecology, from the pitch pines, scrub oaks and the pine barrens, to take fire out of that, would almost be synonymous to taking rain out of a rainforest,” said Brian Schaffler, a U.S. Forest Service expert in Milwaukee who specializes in hazardous fuels and prescribed fires. Schaffler pointed to research that native tribes used fire to manage the pine barrens. That was before the more modern mindset that any fires should be prevented.

Long Island's pine barrens are a 105,000-acre patchwork of public and...

Long Island's pine barrens are a 105,000-acre patchwork of public and private lands that is seven times the size of Manhattan. Credit: Newsday/Andrew Wong

In recent decades, agencies have set off controlled burns, also known as “prescribed fires,” but their efforts have been inconsistent. According to Capt. Timothy Byrnes, a state DEC forest ranger, there were only 99 prescribed fires on 1,855 acres in the Long Island pine barrens from 2008 to 2021. By mid-August this year, there had been 24 fires on 371 acres. Sites included the Otis Pike Pine Barrens State Forest in Manorville and the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest. Officials said improved staffing and abatement of the coronavirus pandemic helped them set more fires this past summer.

Byrnes said that before setting fire to grasslands or woodlands, a “burn boss” assesses wind, humidity and moisture in “fuels” such as grasses, dead wood or scrub oak. Acreage is carefully plotted and crews spray water at the boundaries before setting fires with drip torches.

Byrnes said great care is taken, with crews assigned to ignite, contain and extinguish the flames. After a burn dies out, personnel stay behind to watch for flare-ups. Priority for burns is given to “wildland-
urban interface” areas close to buildings and residential communities to reduce the danger of wildfires.

Brookhaven National Laboratory, which has nearly 3,300 acres of pine barrens on its 5,600-acre campus in Upton, was the site of a 23-acre prescribed burn near Ridge in July.

Kathy Schwager, an ecologist and the prescribed fire program manager for the facility, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory, said that before prescribed fires, she speaks to residents in neighboring communities such as Ridge to explain “the who, what, when, where and how of prescribed fires.”

She said planners try hard to avoid sending smoke into a community. “Yes, it does generate smoke, but smoke from a wildfire is going to be a lot worse,” she said.

Monitoring a controlled burn at Rocky Point State Pine Barrens Preserve in April 2022 are Polly Weigand, left, Erich Horn, squad boss with the Central Pine Barrens Commission, and Chris Feineis, a volunteer firefighter. Erich Horn walks the fire line the same day. | Newsday Photos / Steve Pfost

Reducing fuel

Another tool in encouraging the health of the pine barrens is forest thinning, which aims to prevent fires and suppress the pine beetle.

In the 2,700-acre David A. Sarnoff Pine Barrens State Forest, two miles south of downtown Riverhead, a sandy hiking trail reveals a tale of two forests. On one side, even under sunny skies, is a dark thicket jammed with gnarly pitch pine, tall oaks, spindly scrub oak, and blueberry and bearberry bushes. On the trail’s other side, pitch pine trees stand 10 to 20 feet apart with clear daylight between them. Bushes grow here and there. During a visit to the forest in August, it was easy to see a thousand feet into the distance.

The open area is the result of five years’ work by Hudson, Steigerwald and others to reduce the overgrowth on 162 acres in the northern section of Sarnoff. That area was targeted to protect the nearby Riverwoods mobile home community from forest fire. Employing brute force, crews drove tank-like masticator machines with rotating drums into select areas to chew up overgrown bushes and scrub pine. Then they used chain saws to weed out trees growing too close together.

The benefits, forest experts say, are plenty. Fewer trees compete for sunlight, nutrients and water. There is less fuel for wildfires.

Polly Weigand, science and stewardship program manager for the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission, explained that overgrown underbrush can create a ladder for a wildfire to climb from needles on the ground up through the bushes and scrub oak to the tree canopy. That scenario — a worst-case “crown fire” — scorched at least 3,200 acres in the legendary 1995 “Sunrise Fire” in eastern Suffolk County.

A super dense forest is called “dog hair,” Hudson said. Weigand called it “beetle bait.”

Native to the southeastern United States, the southern pine beetle has been expanding up the East Coast. Natural resin in a healthy pitch pine tree can “pitch out” beetles in small numbers, experts say, but a stressed tree cannot, especially when southern pine beetles secrete a pheromone that attracts even more by the hundreds.

“It’s when you get a thousand attacking one tree, it really has no chance to survive,” Steigerwald said.

The beetles — about the size of a grain of rice and red-brown to black in color — get under the corky bark of pitch pines and create swirly tunnels that disrupt the flow of nutrients, killing the trees.

State forest rangers manage a prescribed grassland burn on a tract of land at Routes 25 and 25A in Calverton in May 2022. Forest ranger Bryan Gallagher walks through the smoke during the burn on the same day. | Newsday Photos / Steve Pfost

‘Smokeless wildfire’

Hudson called pine beetle attacks “the smokeless wildfire, because it can be that quick.” His description of the multiplying swarms sounds like a horror movie.

“You get a hot, dry year like this, and the southern pine beetle can just start,” he said. “They’re out looking for those stressed trees. They find a tree, they overwhelm that tree’s defenses. They kill that tree, they reproduce a hundredfold, and then they can come out and get 10 trees.

“So by June 1st,” he continued, “they’re in their second generation going from one tree to 10 trees. By August 1st, they’re at 100 trees, pushing a thousand by September 1st. And if you get a warm fall, they can get another six weeks so they can have an October generation, and we’ve seen generations in December.”

Experts say the Northeast’s cold winters usually kept the pine beetle south of New Jersey, but the pest was detected in significant numbers there in 2001, attacking the Garden State’s sprawling pinelands. They say warmer winters caused by climate change have encouraged the beetle’s march north. The DEC warned in April that the beetle had been found in parks in the Hudson Valley.

In 2014, the southern pine beetle was reported at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, Henry’s Hollow Pine Barrens State Forest in Hampton Bays and Connetquot River State Park in Oakdale.

“I don’t know if you’ve been to Connetquot park,” Hudson said, “but it is almost nude of pitch pines right now. It got in there and it just exploded.”

COVID derailed work

In the years before COVID-19, Hudson said, state crews made inroads to suppress the beetle, but had to curtail efforts in 2020.

“We just didn’t have the resources, and we just couldn’t go anywhere,” he said, referring to pandemic travel restrictions. “I think the whole world understands. And then 2021, we saw upticking, and I kind of braced everybody for what 2022 was gonna look like ... and it was actually, shockingly, greater than I imagined.”

Schwager, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, agreed: “It happens so fast, so alarmingly fast, and it is basically blowing through the lab right now.” She said BNL hopes to secure funds to thin the forest overgrowth on that federal property.

Aside from the pine beetle, ecologists say other invasive pests and growths are a continual threat. Among them are species known generically as Japanese stilt grass, Chinese silver grass, mile-a-minute weed, which grows fast and smothers other plants, and oak wilt, a fungus that kills oak trees.

Ecologists and farmers are particularly watching for the spotted lantern fly, a red, black and gray moth found in Pennsylvania in 2014 and found recently on Long Island. It feeds on more than 70 plants, leaving behind a sticky residue.

Officials said they’re aware that the pine barrens, though vast, are out of sight and out of mind for many people. Still, they want Long Islanders to understand why it’s important to care about the wilderness.

A section of forest that has been managed, left, and...

A section of forest that has been managed, left, and unmanaged, right, inside the David A. Sarnoff preserve in Riverhead, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Why the area’s important

Weigand ticked off the reasons: The plants and soils of the pine barrens cleanse water as it seeps into the aquifer that supplies the Island’s fresh water.

“If you don’t have a functional ecosystem, you’re drinking contaminated groundwater. So that’s one,” Weigand said.

Second, she said, is that the pine beetle is also killing homeowners’ trees.

“If you’re not controlling the beetle that’s infesting on your property, or your neighbor’s not, it’s going to come to your property,” Weigand said, “and it’s going to cost you $1,000-plus to cut that hazard tree down.”

Third, Weigand said, “is that everybody lives in a certain area because it gives them a sense of place and value. And the pine barrens is what gives Long Island a sense of place.

“When we lose the pine barrens, which has one of the highest number of rare and endangered species and ecosystems of any place in New York State, we’re losing why we love Long Island.”

Two fawns can be seen in the charred remains of...

Two fawns can be seen in the charred remains of the pine barrens in Westhampton on Aug. 27, 1995, after the devastating "Sunrise Fire" earlier that week. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

LESSONS FROM THE ASHES

The legendary 1995 “Sunrise Fire” was the largest wildfire New York State had seen in nearly a century. For four days, it burned through at least 3,200 acres of Long Island pine barrens, involved virtually every Long Island fire department and cost more than $5.2 million to fight.

Historical accounts say efforts to fight the fire were hampered by agencies unable to communicate over different radio frequencies, shifts in command and delays in getting equipment. Some firefighters drove stump-jumper trucks into the burning woods but were forced to retreat as flames raced across the treetops. More than 400 people were evacuated and 25 firefighters suffered minor injuries.

From the ashes of that experience was born the New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy, an annual series of classes to help firefighters sharpen their skills against wildland fires, especially the towering walls of flames that stunned suburban volunteers in the woods in 1995.

The academy will offer classes for the 24th time Oct. 17-28 at Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus. About 130 participants from across the country are expected to take 13 courses, according to coordinator Katherine Malangone. Subjects include leadership and the use of pumps and chain saws. In a controlled burn, some participants will set torches to a pine barrens area, and another group will put out the fires with water and shovels.

Suffolk County Fire Marshal Joseph Kuethen, a board member of the wildfire academy, was an assistant chief with the St. James Volunteer Fire Department during the 1995 fire. His truck extinguished flames along roads near Sunrise Highway and refilled brush-truck water tanks.

He said the academy’s instructors include experts who have fought expansive wildfires in the West and Midwest.

“The general mindset of firefighting, the typical guy’s . . . is to put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” he said. “That’s what we’re used to. The wildland techniques were altogether different, where you isolate areas, and you actually burn away areas before the fire gets to it, or you cut fire breaks so you help steer the fire. You help eliminate the fuels so it can’t advance.”

Capt. Timothy Byrnes, a ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and board chairman of the academy, said the academy seeks to teach firefighters how to predict a wildfire’s progress based on weather and flammable materials. He offered a scenario: “We have a condition, it’s windy and dry with a lot of fuels on the ground . . . You know what? Maybe I shouldn’t go in with a fire truck and try to put it out directly.”

Byrnes said the academy has taught chiefs how to coordinate with other departments and agencies and their equipment, even aircraft that can drop water or retardants on a fire. “So it allowed them to see a whole different dynamic, vertical as well as horizontal, as to how they can be participating in a response with that kind of resources available to them,” he said.

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