Brush with winter

Brushwith winter: Lackof snow increasing forest fire danger

2 February 2007

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USA — All week long, television meteorologists in Bostonand Springfield have been talking about a winter storm for last night and today.

Ordinarily, that would produce a flurry of activity at supermarkets, conveniencestores and hardware stores as people stocked up with essentials to ride out thestorm.

But even storms are a bust this year — no more than 3 to 4 inches of snow isexpected before the offshore storm — call it a mini nor’easter if you wish— moves farther out to sea.

Lt. Steve Oberg, right, battles a brush fire in a wooded area near 507 Plantation St. in Worcester yesterday. (Photo: BETTY JENEWIN)

For the second consecutive January, water flowed over the dam at the head of the Quabbin spillway.

Jonathan Yeo, director of the Division of Water Supply Protection for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said this week that the water supply serving 2.5 million people in the metropolitan Boston region and four towns west of the Quabbin is in excellent shape, with the Quabbin full and spilling water into the Swift River and Wachusett Reservoir at near capacity.

Not everyone, however, is ebullient over the lack of snow cover and dry conditions so far this season.Mike Kiernan, District 7 fire warden, said this week from his office at Douglas State Forest that unless February and March bring significant snow cover, Central Massachusetts could be in for a very busy forest fire season this spring.

Mr. Kiernan said if these conditions continue through March there will be little opportunity for the recharge of groundwater, streams and lakes and ponds.

“That means drier ground conditions could make for a much more activeforest fire season,” he said.

Because brush-burning season is already under way, having opened Jan. 15, hesaid, it might become necessary to man the fire towers on weekends as long asmanpower is available. Some communities in the Blackstone Valley are not issuingbrush-burning permits because of the lack of snow cover. “I think everyone isin a ‘wait-and-see’ mode right now, hoping that we have some snow cover orrainfall to wet things down.”

By example, he pointed to a two-acre brush fire earlier this week on theWorcester-Shrewsbury line.

Trevor F. Augustino, District 11 warden for the Department of Conservation andRecreation’s Bureau of Forest Fire Control, said he has one truck ready toroll if needed and he hopes seasonal help will be available sooner this year.

He says he is concerned that, without the compaction that snow cover provides toleaf litter on the forest floor, fires could spread more quickly.

Since 1998, he said, he’s noticed a trend of brush fires occurring earliereach year. In 2005, the first major brush fire occurred April 5; last year, thefirst brush fire of any size occurred in the last week of March.

“And last year we had more snow cover than we’ve seen so far this year,”he said.

In northern Worcester County, Patricia A. Correia is District 8 fire warden.

She shares the concerns of her fellow wardens.

Now that open-burning season has started, Ms. Correia is concerned thatdryness and inadequate precautions could lead to earlier brush fires.

Out-of-control permit fires usually become an issue during April, wardens say,as people hurry to burn brush before the May 1 end of the season.

Bright sunshine, little or no foliage, warm temperatures and brisk winds are allthat’s needed to turn a permit fire into one that cannot be controlled withoutintervention from local and state firefighters. “Historically, April is ourbusiest month for brush fires, but this year we may find ourselves busier a lotearlier than usual,” Ms. Correia said.

The degree of fire danger for the region is assessed, based on weather and otherconditions, on a daily basis, she said. Based on that information, individualfire departments may decide whether or not to issue burning permits for thatday.

She said she expects some seasonal employees to start work March 18, and willhave towers staffed even earlier if the need arises and the manpower isavailable.

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