Fire happens in forests. The question is what to do about it. This week's windblown fires, whose origins are still unclear, raise that question anew.
Suffolk County is blessed with thousands of acres of forest land, including the pine barrens. Many of those acres are in public ownership. All that open space provides immense benefits, from tourism to pure drinking water. But it also poses the question of what to do with the fallen leaves and other debris that gather on the forest floor. It's just waiting for the right combination of an ignition source, high winds, and dry weather to become the fuel for a big fire -- like this week.
For Steve Bellone, with only three months on the job as county executive, the fires are a stark reminder that natural disasters can suddenly eclipse man-made ones, like his budget crisis. But the week's events offer him a real incentive to figure out ways of avoiding future big burns.
One potential answer is the development of a plan by the county, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, environmental groups and fire districts to do regular controlled burning, or prescribed fires, to incinerate leaves in small fires and keep them from building up to big ones.
Controlled burns can work, and they have worked, here and elsewhere. They have also been known to go wrong. You pick a day when the winds are calm and the humidity is high, when weather conditions won't keep the smoke hovering close to the ground. But sometimes the wind whips up unexpectedly, and what started as a controlled burn becomes a wildfire. That happened in Colorado just last month, when a sudden wind fanned some remaining embers, days after a prescribed burn by the Colorado State Forest Service, into a major fire west of Denver. It also sparked a debate over whether to ban or continue the controlled burns.
It's time we had a debate like that in Suffolk.
Attitudes toward forest fires have changed over the years. For decades after the Great Fire of 1910 torched 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the question was pretty much settled: Never mind the argument that fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem, that there are even tree species that depend on fire to release seeds from their cones. After that fire, the goal became: Put it out as fast as you can. Later, along came Smokey Bear. Then came the environmental movement, with a return to the notion that fires are natural.
Now, right here on Long Island, we need to take a look at what resources we have, make some informed decisions about the benefits and dangers of controlled burning, and come up with a plan. Who should be responsible? The DEC and the county parks staff would play a major role. And there's plenty of expertise available, such as the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse and its Ranger School in Wanakena.
In this fire, we've been lucky. Volunteer firefighters were brave and worked hard to control the flames. Some equipment was damaged, but no firefighter has died. We owe them all a debt of gratitude. But we also owe them an effort to create a plan that might stave off some future big fire that could have far worse consequences.