Pictured Above: Lighting a test fire to determine if conditions were favorable for a prescribed burn in the Rocky Point State Forest on April 25.
Wildfire is central to the ecosystem of Long Island’s pine barrens, but since the major wildfires here in 1995, rapid response to fires has, for the most part, kept them from burning out of control.
While this may seem like a good thing for the thousands of people who live within this ecosystem, fire suppression carries with it a significant new challenge. Without regular cycles of fires and with the damage to pitch pines here caused by the southern pine beetle, fuels are building up in the pine barrens, creating the potential for future wildfires to again burn out of control.
This spring, the Central Pine Barrens Commission, with the help of $1.25 million in funding from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, has embarked on an ambitious prescribed fire program, planning to burn the fuels in the underbrush of more than 100 acres of woodlands in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest on Whiskey Road in Middle Island and Ridge, and in the David Sarnoff Pine Barrens State Forest just off of Route 104 in Riverside.
Bob Panko, a longtime wildland firefighter and incident commander, has been working for the Pine Barrens Commission on its Prescribed Burn Plan since 2019. This new funding, for the first time this spring, allowed him to hire a crew of seasonal firefighters to work from mid-March through May, augmented by an established DEC crew comprised mostly of forest rangers, along with firefighters from Brookhaven National Laboratory and local volunteer fire departments.
The conditions necessary for a good controlled fire are particular. The winds need to be just right, and the relative humidity and moisture content of fuels needs to be in a very narrow range, ensuring the safety of firefighters and surrounding neighborhoods. When the weather looks right, Mr. Panko, whose title in the field is Burn Boss, sends out a canvasing email to qualified firefighters, telling them the plan for the day and where to meet.
On the last Monday in April, conditions were just right to burn five acres of woodlands adjacent to a housing development in the Rocky Point state forest. Mr. Panko, who wears a button on his hat that reads “We’re professionals. Do Not trying this at home,” put out a call for firefighters. Seventeen responded.
“I’ve spent a lifetime chasing and suppressing fires all over this country from people ‘trying it at home,’” said Mr. Panko. “Now I am just an old burn boss trying to pass what I know to the next generation.”
As the firefighters gathered Monday morning at the edge of Currens Field, a former field burned the prior week to manage the habitat there, Mr. Panko gave a detailed briefing on the day’s incident action plan.
“We’re continuing on, on what I call the South of Currens complex,” he said. “We’ve been putting together little pieces of this puzzle and we’re building little pieces of it. We’ve burned off Currens Field and a total of 15 acres in the pitch pine woods. We’re in a pretty good position now to start putting more pieces of this puzzle together as we do this whole 123-acre unit.”
The acreage to be burned that day was very much like a jigsaw puzzle piece, bounded on one side by a 20-foot wide fire break that stretches 13 miles through the forest, on another by a fire line scratched down into mineral soil with hand tools by a firefighting class at the New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy, and on another by the burned field. The breeze was blowing from the woods toward the field, allowing the crews to “burn into the black,” as they say, ensuring that, if the wind conditions held, any embers would only get as far as an area already burned.
Two crews worked to stretch two hose lines along the perimeter of the area to be burned, drawing water from folding pools filled frequently by an engine refilling off-site. The hoses were there, primarily, to keep the fire from creeping up into the crowns of the trees, where it can quickly spread.
“Pitch pine lives to crown,” said Mr. Panko as he watched the third crew, the firing crew, light a test fire at the edge of the field. “It wants to reset the whole habitat. If fire touches a needle, it just goes up.”
“If you go back to the Crescent Bow fire, ten years ago (just outside of Brookhaven National Laboratory), that area was totally nuked. it’s now a first successional habitat, which is so important to the critters that live in the pine barrens,” he said. “From 1931 to 2000, there were multiple large fires every decade in the central pine barrens. Those fires are the ones that really reset the habitat.”
But large wildfires are not compatible with people living in what’s known in firefighting circles as the wildland-urban interface.
The Pine Barrens Commission has been laying the groundwork for public support of this project for several years, holding community meetings to explain to people who live abutting these forests why prescribed fire is important for protecting their homes, and preparing the Prescribed Fire Management Plan and Prescribed Burn Plan finalized in 2021.
But having an actual live burn that doesn’t disturb the neighbors is the real test of whether this program will get off the ground.
“The last thing we want is to have a bad experience for these folks. That will make it harder for future controlled burns,” said Mr. Panko as the crews began to set to work. “I want them to walk out here and say ‘wow this is pretty cool stuff and we feel safer now because they’ve reduced all those fuel loads.’”
The day went off without a hitch, but that’s not by accident.
“The weather, the fuels and the “plan” all came into alignment today, and ‘alignment’ of factors makes the difference in wildland fire management,” said Mr. Panko after the day’s burn was over. “Detailed planning and pre- and post-analysis is a key to determining if you are getting the results you set out to achieve.”
And there is plenty more work out there to be done. Work in the Sarnoff and Rocky Point forests is slated to continue into May, with burning to take place just off of Route 104 in Riverside the week of May 2, but after May the window of opportunity closes for the year.
“We don’t have the resources to burn what we need to, ecologically,” said DEC Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher, who has been Burn Boss for many local DEC prescribed fires, and was working on this fire to get Kathy Schwager, an ecologist and Prescribed Fire Program Manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory, qualified to lead a firing group. “We need the right number of qualified people and the weather has to cooperate.”