The Central Pine Barrens Commission’s newly released a plan to reduce the risk of wildfires in the Flanders pine barrens has many who live and fight fires in Flanders shaking their heads.
Will Bowman of consultant Land Use Ecological Services and Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic brought the plan to the Flanders community in a meeting at the David W. Crohan Community Center Tuesday evening, but many in attendance wondered why the primary concern of firefighters in Flanders — large dead standing and fallen oak trees in the area surrounding Pleasure Drive — weren’t the primary focus of the plan.
Mr. Bowman said contractors for the commission will begin work late this fall clearing a three-mile long, 12-foot wide fire access road behind homes to the west of Brookhaven and Oak avenues and work to thin trees on 25 of 113 county-owned acres west of Pleasure Drive and east of Maple Avenue.
He said fire access lanes west of Pleasure Drive are heavily rutted and are inaccessible with the forestry mower that will be used to clear the road west of Brookhaven Avenue, and will require a bulldozer, which his firm doesn’t have.
But Flanders Fire Chief Joe Pettit said he’s surprised by the focus on Brookhaven Avenue, when Flanders fire chiefs have been sounding the alarm about the conditions near Pleasure Drive for the better part of a decade.
He said he could protect three houses on Brookhaven Avenue with one fire engine from the street, while it would take three engines to protect one house on Pleasure Drive from a wildfire.
He added that when brush trucks go into the woods off of Pleasure Drive, dead oak trees often snap down onto the trucks, after which the root balls of the trees jam up in between their wheels, as happened in a fire to the east of Pleasure Drive back in April.
“For eight years, we’ve been talking about Pleasure Drive, and I’ve never heard any concerns about Brookhaven,” he said.
Mr. Pettit said he’d taken DEC and county emergency managers into the woods off of Pleasure Drive to see the conditions there, and they’d agreed that the conditions were terrible.
“Pleasure Drive is difficult to impossible to access,” agreed Mr. Bowman, who added that dead oak trees are “strewn like pickup sticks throughout the [county] property.”
Mr. Pavacic said access to many of the properties on the southern end of Pleasure Drive would require permission from private property owners there, while the area off of Brookhaven Avenue is part of the DEC’s David A. Sarnoff Preserve and the area on the northwest side of Pleasure Drive is county parkland.
Flanders Ex-Chief David Fox said the fire lane behind Brookhaven Avenue isn’t where a big fire will likely break out. He added that the fire lane could easily be used by burglars who want to break into houses.
Residents of Flanders agreed with the firefighters.
“I’m not concerned about the houses. The firefighters going in there, that is suicide,” said Susan Tocci of the woods off of Pleasure Drive. “We need that area concentrated on. I don’t want them putting their lives on the line going in there.”
“Your limitation is you can’t find a bulldozer?” asked Ron Fisher. “I’ll find you a bulldozer.”
Mr. Bowman said the current budget for the project is just $225,000, and wildfire mitigation work is also being done in Rocky Point and Eastport.
“There are budget limitations,” he said, adding that he hopes there will be money in 2016 for a bulldozer. “We’re really concerned about firefighter safety. That’s why we’re reducing the fuels, to make sure the fires they fight are lower intensity and more manageable.”
If the draft plan is implemented, work would begin behind Brookhaven Avenue and on the northwestern side of Pleasure Drive in November, and would continue through March.
The thinning behind Brookhaven Avenue would be followed by a prescribed burn to reduce the amount of fuel in the woods.
The work would be paid for by the Central Pine Barrens Commission using money from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund.