Fire service’s newest toy burns invading grasses on Mullica River

      Fire service’s newest toy burns invading grasses on Mullica River

14 March 2009

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USA — The thumping sound of helicopter blades preceded the state Forest Fire Service’s Bell 206 JetRanger as it flew south over the Mullica River and turned to survey Hog Island, where it burned 132 acres of reeds Friday morning.

Hanging out the side was Rob Gill, an aerial ignition specialist, who would be operating the service’s new fire-starting device mounted to the helicopter, “The Red Dragon.”

Generically referred to as a plastic-sphere dispenser, the dragon is filled with paintball-like orbs containing potassium permanganate. When turned on, the machine injects the balls with antifreeze and drops them to the ground, where the mixture of chemicals bursts into flames about a minute later.

The island is in the middle of the river, officially part of Burlington County although right on the boundary with Atlantic County, and is privately owned but managed by The Bear Creek Conservancy.

The group recently cooperated with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to spray herbicide over an infestation of phragmites, and is now paying the fire service a few thousand dollars to burn the invasive plants away to make room for native flora and fauna.

“Global warming aside, phragmites is the No. 1 threat to the health of our estuaries,” said Emile DeVito, manager of science for the NJ Conservation Foundation, who was familiar with Friday’s project. “It basically consumes all the habitat and virtually wipes out all the species.”

On the Atlantic County bank of the river, a crowd of trucks and people assembled to watch the blaze. A red fire service truck was parked near an Egg Harbor City police SUV in case the fire jumped the water, and a couple other pickup trucks were around from the locals fishing.

Russ Fenton, the division fire warden for the area, stood on the sandy beach and watched the helicopter swoop down to about 50 feet above the island to start dropping its payload.

“You can’t even see anything from here,” he said, but a few minutes later, black smoke started to rise from the reeds, evidence the balls were working.

The crew in the helicopter started lighting the fire downwind at the western tip of the island to see how the phragmities would light. It took at least a half hour for the flames to start carrying through the reeds, slowed by the rising tide and swampy ground.

Down by the water, John Ford and Albert Gunther stood next to their fishing rods, watching the flames rise and a black plume of smoke billow into the sky. The helicopter had made several rounds on the island already, and left for a few minutes to refuel the sphere dispenser.

“Just give me five gallons of gasoline and a rowboat, and I could’ve done that,” said Ford, of Hammonton.

“We’re having smoked herring tonight,” said Gunther, of Egg Harbor City.

Before the helicopter returned, Brian Marsh, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s New Jersey Field Office, pulled onto the beach. He explained the goal was to encourage the growth of more spartina, or cord grass, which would in turn encourage birds and fish to come to the area to forage.

“As far as wildlife habitat goes, that’s pretty much useless,” he said, looking across the water at the smoke rising from the wall of yellow plants.

In the distance, another cloud of smoke rose from two different areas where the service also was burning Friday, both in Wharton State Forest. The deadline for lighting prescribed burns was supposed to be Sunday, but the service extended it at least a week to reduce the state’s potential wildfire fuel load as much as possible.

Soon the helicopter came back and made a few more drops over the island, before radioing down to Fenton that they would have to stop for the day. The balls — 1,900 were dropped — were not lighting the reeds as much as they expected, and they decided to head back to the hangar at Coyle Airfield on Route 72 in Woodland Township.

“It wasn’t good,” said Bill Edwards, also a division firewarden, after getting out of the JetRanger and taking off his helmet. “The flames wouldn’t even jump the little channels.”

Edwards considered a Plan B. The service also has what it calls a “heli-torch,” which basically spews napalm, but the helicopter to which it is fixed is being repaired. He said they would likely have to return to the site and burn it by hand, with drip torches, as they light most fires.

The service purchased its sphere dispenser late last year, for about $8,000, for projects just like this — lighting small fires in hard-to-reach places. Friday’s burn was only the fourth time they have used it, however, and they said they are still learning how to use it efficiently.

After their lunch break, they were off to get more practice. They suited back up and flew to Wharton State Forest, where their crews could not burn some remote areas, and needed “The Red Dragon” to finish the job.

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