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State offers wildfire plan for Long Island pine barrens

New York State DEC personnel, as well as

New York State DEC personnel, as well as DEC volunteers and students of the New York Wildfire and Incident Wildfire Academy, conduct a "prescribed fire," or controlled burn, on New York State-owned pine barrens land in Ridge on April 10, 2013. Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

State officials presented Flanders residents with a plan Tuesday night to burn woodland, trim trees and cut paths in a 315-acre section of the Long Island pine barrens to combat wildfires in the heavily wooded hamlet.

The plan would cost about $225,000, state officials said. It includes controlled burns and new trails to give firefighters better access to the dense forests in the state-protected 102,500-acre pine barrens region.

Flanders Fire Department officials and about two dozen residents met with state officials to discuss the plan at the David W. Crohan Community Center.

Fire Chief Joe Pettit, who has long called on state officials to increase fire prevention in the pine barrens, said firefighters battle five to seven blazes there each year, usually in the spring and fall. Pettit and other fire department officials expressed concerns the plan focuses too much on state land.

Officials with the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission, the state agency that oversees the vast wooded area, said although fires are a natural occurrence in the pine barrens, steps are needed to reduce the risk of the blazes spreading to thousands of Flanders homes.

The commission's governing body is scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 21. If the plan is approved, work would begin in November, officials said.

"The pine barrens is a fire-dependent ecosystem," John Pavacic, director of the pine barrens commission, said at the meeting. "In most of these areas, they haven't had fires in a long time and they have fuels that have built up."

The commission has hired a Medford environmental consulting firm, Land Use Ecological Services, to help craft and execute the wildfire plan.

Will Bowman, an ecologist with the company, told those at the meeting the plan calls for creating a safety zone along the northern and eastern edges of the state's David A. Sarnoff Preserve.

He said the zone would be formed through controlled burns, tree cutting and the carving of a 12-foot-wide trail along 3 miles of the property. The trails would provide firefighters with better access into the pine barrens. Burning and trimming the forest would remove fuel that feeds wildfires and allows them to spread to the forest canopy, he said.

Bowman said the plan also calls for chain-saw crews to trim trees and brush from the nearby Suffolk County property along Pleasure Drive. Some Flanders firefighters said the state plan focuses too heavily on the Sarnoff preserve and doesn't do enough to create pathways for firefighters through the more troublesome Pleasure Drive property.

Pettit added that firefighters had little trouble accessing the Sarnoff preserve. But the Pleasure Drive property is almost impassable, he said, because of fallen oaks on the trail that are big enough to damage fire trucks severely.

"I'm not trying to chase you away," Pettit told officials at the meeting. "I'm just saying the focus isn't on the right area."

Bowman said officials hope to eventually clear fallen oaks from the Pleasure Drive property using bulldozers, but that is a longer-term goal that requires more resources.


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