Controlling Fire in Long Island’s Pine Barrens

Pictured Above: DEC firefighters at the April 20 controlled burn. | Courtesy DEC

Long Island’s pine barrens have always been a fire-dependent ecosystem, where periodic wildfires have swept through the forests, churning up dead wood while the heat forces open pine cones, spreading new seeds and new life.

But wildfires in this ecosystem can get out of hand rapidly, and since the 1995 Sunrise wildfires, local volunteer fire departments have become adept at quickly stopping these fires before they threaten homes and communities within the ecosystem.

While those quick stops have protected homes, unburned dead wood has been collecting within the pine barrens, particularly since the southern pine beetle began infesting these woodlands half a decade ago.

At the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest on Whiskey Road, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been working on solutions to this problem through an ecological research operation funded by a 2017 U.S. Forest Service grant.

The DEC has turned 27 acres of the site into a Demonstration Forest, with 9 acres serving as a control, and the other 18 acres divided up into three-acre blocks where they are thinning the forest or practicing forest thinning in conjunction with prescribed burns.

The first three-acre block was burned on Tuesday, April 20. 

While the DEC frequently burns grasslands for habitat management, this was the first forest burn conducted by the DEC here since 2007, said DEC Forester John Wernet, who has been conducting the management of the Demonstration Forest, and has been preparing plans for the prescribed burn here since 2015. He expects to burn more blocks of the Demonstration Forest in the upcoming months.

The Demonstration Forest project is designed to determine how to make Long Island’s pine barrens more resilient against the southern pine beetle, which can spread quickly through a dense pitch pine forest.

“It’s kind of like with Covid,” he said of the beetle infestation. “Trees need to be spaced out. In a dense forest, the trees are already in a weakened state, competing for sunlight and rainwater.”

While pine beetles are able to travel more easily from tree to tree in a dense forest, they also follow their attraction to pheromone scents released by other beetles. Prescribed fire in the understory increases air flow around trees, and causes the pheromone trail to be lost to air exchange, said Mr. Wernet.

“Now the risk of a catastrophic crown fire is also diminished,” he added, talking about a fire that reaches the canopy of the trees and then spreads rapidly from treetop to treetop. “I’m curious to see how much and how quickly the pitch pine grows back.”

The DEC is looking to expand its use of prescribed burns in the pine barrens, particularly in areas where a large wildfire threatens communities within the pine barrens — areas known in the wildfire fighting world as “wildland-urban interfaces.”

The DEC is looking to do these burns “if it’s appropriate and can be done safely,” said DEC Spokesman Bill Fonda. 

There’s a great deal of planning that goes into any controlled burn, as evidenced by the years it took to get the Rocky Point project to the point where it began in mid-April. Prescribed burns must be done under the right conditions — when the humidity is not too low and the wind conditions are right, said Mr. Wernet.

“The biggest issue for the public is smoke management,” he added. 

While planning for burns can take years, the preparation leading up to the day of the burn also takes quite a bit of time. Wildland firefighters, including DEC Forest Rangers, staff and volunteers who have received wildland firefighting training, prep the site in the days leading up to the burn, digging a fire line around the area to be burned and taking down snags — dead standing trees — so they don’t fall in an uncontrolled way. 

The April 20 burn itself took about an hour-and-a-half, said Mr. Fonda, after which the DEC staff and volunteers stayed on site to make sure the fire was completely out.

The DEC is looking for more trained staff to help out with prescribed burns — the New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, held at Brookhaven National Laboratory since just after the Sunrise Wildfires in 1997, offers the basic Wildland Firefighter training (S130/S-190), and on Long Island the DEC administers the Work Capacity Test, known as the “pack test,” which must be refreshed each year and is a 3-mile hike with a 45 pound pack, which must be completed in 45 minutes without running or jogging. These are also the basic requirements for wildland firefighters working throughout the country.

“I hope there will be a lot more of it,” said Mr. Wernet of prescribed fire on Long Island. “We’re looking to create defensible space around homes.”

The goal is to protect homes,” said Mr. Fonda.

For more information on how to keep your own property safe from wildfires, visit www.wildlandfirersg.org.

— BHY

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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