Staten Island brush-fire plan will combat menacing phragmites blazes

Staten Island brush-fire plan will combat menacing phragmites blazes

05 January 2012

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USA — STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — After two decades of Staten Islanders living in fear of fire, officials for the first time in history have crafted a comprehensive plan to combat the menacing brush blazes that have threatened the lives of homeowners and firefighters.

“It shows what can happen when agencies and elected officials work together,” Borough President James P. Molinaro told the Advance Editorial Board in announcing the draft Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).

Key to the CWPP is the fact that elected officials, the FDNY and environmental agencies are all on the same page when it comes to the need to eradicate phragmites, the invasive plant that provides the flammable fuel for the blazes.

Officials turned up the heat to get a plan in place after a searing 2010, when 405 brush fires singed the East Shore, with four of those fires growing to red-alert, five-alarm conflagrations.

The 7,389 brush fires that have broken out here since 1996 have helped make the entire Gateway National Recreation Area, including its East Shore properties, the National Parks Service (NPS) spot with the fourth highest occurrence of fires, trailing only Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve (Fla.).

Molinaro and other officials have done battle with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in recent years, looking to make it easier for homeowners in the brush-fire zone to cut back flammable phragmites that were near their homes.

Thanks to that intervention, as well as that of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), homeowners are now allowed to cut back phragmites to within 100 feet of their homes.

But the draft CWPP — crafted by local officials, the NPS, DEC, FDNY and the city Parks Department and Department of Environmental Protection — looks to provide permanent solutions to the problem, including allowing for a 150-foot firebreak.

Over the next one to five years, the plan calls for phragmites to be mowed down from six to eight times during growing season. That entails the arduous removal of debris from the wild areas, including household detritus like discarded washing machines, tubs and refrigerators, that could damage mowing equipment.

“The debris has to be removed or else this plan will come to naught,” said Borough Hall environmental engineer Nick Dmytryszyn.

It also calls for educating residents about how to better protect their homes from brush fires, including outlying structures like sheds or garages.

Longer term, the plan calls for the phragmites to be treated with herbicides and possibly burned in a effort to eradicate them. Further out, officials would look to replant the fire-zone areas with fire-resistant native vegetation. Retention ponds would also be created to retard the spread of fires and to prevent the phragmites from re-introducing themselves.

“The environment and lives are being protected,” said Molinaro. “We’re losing nothing. Everybody’s on board in a positive way.”

Stephen Zahn, natural resources supervisor for Region 2 of the DEC, said that because the phragmites inhabit fragile freshwater wetlands, “it’s not as simple as just removing” the invasive weed.

“We’re all for getting rid of the phragmites while preserving the wetlands,” Zahn said. “You have to do it an in a particular way so you don’t destroy the habitat.”

He said such an undertaking could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre, involving herbicides, digging out the roots, changing the soil and rerouting water.

“We would like to see it eradicated,” said Edward Toth, director of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a part of the city Parks Department. “It’s not easy.”

But it has been done here before, with phragmites successfully eradicated from Bridge Creek in Mariners Harbor. Eradication is under way on Prall’s Island as well.

Deputy Assistant Chief Michael Marrone, the borough FDNY commander, said that while some of the fires have been accidental, others were deliberately set by those looking to make “mischief.”

“It’s very difficult to prove,” Marrone said.

City Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn) said the plan represented “the first time there was a real effort at a comprehensive solution.”

“To me, this is a major change,” he said. “Is it an immediate solution? No. But it’s a real plan.”

Speaking separately, Tomas Liogys, assistant fire management officer for the Mid-Atlantic area for the NPS, called the plan, “a great collaboration by various agencies to address a common problem.”

“Fire knows no bounds,” he said.

“Everybody’s been dealing by the seat of the pants,” said Dmytryszyn. “The city has never had a plan before. It’s groundbreaking. This is major for this Island.”

He said he didn’t know yet how much the full plan would cost to implement.

The plan is also necessary in order to ensure federal funding for anti-wildfire efforts, including $110,000 Gateway received from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Molinaro said the draft plan will now be presented to Island elected officials, with meetings at each of the borough’s three community boards to follow. A general meeting on the plan will be held on Jan. 19 at the Greenbelt Recreation Center.

After public comment, the FDNY, DEC, and the city Parks Department and Department of Environmental Protection will have to sign off on a final plan.

Here’s a closer look at official documents about the brush-fire protection plan:

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