Firefighters battle a large brush fire in Ridge and Wading...

Firefighters battle a large brush fire in Ridge and Wading River. Here the fire jumps across Wading River Road. (April 9, 2012) Credit: Robert Garofalo

Thirteen years after a Pine Barrens management plan recommended using controlled fires to reduce the potential for large blazes, no program has been developed.

Left unburned, brush and debris build up, creating fuel to feed wildfires like two earlier this month that spread to more than 1,200 acres in the Manorville area.

The Central Pine Barrens Wildfire Task Force in 1999 made a variety of recommendations to prevent large fires in the 102,000-acre area that stretches across portions of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton towns. The plan grew out of the 1995 Sunrise Fire that burned thousands of acres and cut off access to the Hamptons during the height of tourism season.

While some recommendations, such as establishing a daily fire danger rating system, have been implemented, a plan to use "prescribed burns" to reduce a buildup of needles, grasses and brush stalled. Such burns are started by firefighters to clear underbrush, which reduces the intensity and rate at which future wildfires may spread.

"It's something that had been worked on," said John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, which oversees land management, conservation and stewardship in the 160-square-mile area. "Right now, there hasn't been a single concerted effort."


Controlled burn plan needed

Multiple jurisdictions facing more pressing issues in the past decade, when few wildfires erupted, led to the delay in developing a prescribed burn plan. But the recent fires, which destroyed three homes and injured three firefighters, have renewed interest in using controlled burns.

The commission, made up of representatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Suffolk County and Riverhead, Brookhaven and Southampton towns, decided last week to seek proposals for a prescribed burn plan and a contract to implement them.

"I think it's imperative that we get that plan in place," Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko said.

While Long Island received some much-needed rain Sunday, it's not enough to reduce the area's fire danger.

Richard Amper, executive director of the advocacy group Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the recent fires are the first of many likely to come this year, making preventive fire management critical.

"There are portions of the Pine Barrens that have not been burned in 70 to 80 years," Amper said. "They're the next time bomb."

Controlled burns have occurred on a small scale.

Between 2006 and 2011, state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers issued permits for burning an average of 82 acres a year, primarily on grasslands. Agency officials said the amount is appropriate.

"On state lands, prescribed fires are one tool to reduce fuel loads," DEC press officer Lori Severino said in a statement. "Fire breaks, timber harvesting and firewood harvesting are other tools to reduce the risk of damage from wildfires. The state uses a combination of these tools to adequately manage state lands and to protect adjoining landowners."

Amper said about 1,000 acres in the Pine Barrens should be intentionally burned each year. Marilyn Jordan, senior conservation scientist at The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, put the number at 1,500 acres to preserve ecological diversity.

"We can't justify congratulating firefighters for putting themselves in harm's way when the harm is in some way from public policy," Amper said.


Pine Barrens not uniform

But no one policy covers the Pine Barrens, where public lands are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state DEC and Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, three towns, several villages and 17 fire districts.

"There is no single entity that has overall ownership and management authority for publicly owned lands in the Pine Barrens," Pavacic said.

Crafting a broad management plan also is difficult because conditions and vegetation are not uniform, he added.

Parts of the Pine Barrens are covered with towering pine trees while other areas are grasslands or wetlands. Much of the vegetation -- pitch pine, scrub oak, blueberry and wintergreen -- need fire to open seed pods and reduce competition. Fire also clears the way for sun and adds nutrients to soil.

Without occasional burns, the area would become a thick, dark oak forest, Jordan said.

Prescribed burns must be undertaken carefully with close attention paid to humidity, wind direction and speed, proximity to structures and staffing levels, said William A. Patterson III, a retired University of Massachusetts forest ecology professor.

"This year, it would be impossible to do it because of weather and dry conditions," he said.

Controlled burns aren't permanent solutions to wildfires, Patterson cautioned. Five or 10 years after a fire, an area is just as vulnerable, he said.

In the Sunrise Fire, "everything was burned down to the bare ground," Jordan said. "It was sand and ash."

Now, 17 years later, pines, heather and bearberry cover the landscape. So do dropped leaves, dry needles, dead pine cones and fallen pieces of burned wood. "It's rife for another fire now," Jordan said.

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