Fire management plan leaves Long Island forests vulnerable to wildfire

Scarred trees off of Schultz Rd in Manorville from the 2012 wildfire.Scarred trees off of Schultz Rd in Manorville from the 2012 wildfire.

By Danielle Hall

The forests on Long Island are primed and ready for wildfire. Thousands of acres should be burned through controlled fires annually in the Long Island Pine Barrens forests, but the annual total stands at zero since 2006, experts say.

The Long Island Pine Barrens, a fire dependent ecosystem, requires wildfire to thin out the dense underbrush and eliminate unhealthy trees. A safe way to do it is through controlled burns, also called prescribed burns. But none of the five agencies in charge of them have been able to organize them for a decade. “The last significant number of woodland fires occurred about 10 years ago,” John Pavacic, Executive Director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, said.

The Nature Conservancy spearheaded and funded many of the prescribed burns up until 2009 when fiscal pressures eliminated their wildfire program. Since then, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is the primary organizer of burning and takes input from owners of pine barren land including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New York State Parks, Suffolk County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and local fire departments.

“It’s scary to look at it because the pitch pine trees are so dense, all it’s gonna take is another year of drought and extreme conditions like we had in 95 and boom, that’s going,” Kathy Schwager, a fire ecologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, said.

The wildfire of 1995 spurred a major Fire Master Plan by the Central Pine Barrens Commission, the entity that coordinates the management of Pine Barrens land across Long Island, but a series of obstacles including weather restrictions, staffing, and funding cuts has deterred planned and controlled burns throughout the forests on the island.

“Fire was used a lot more in the past,” Monica Williams, a fire ecologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said. “Recently we’ve gotten away from that again with just having a lot more people. There’s a lot more at risk. A lot of our budget for fire management has declined as well so we don’t use it as much.”

A unified, island-wide policy, does not exist but instead prescribed fires are managed on an agency by agency basis, according to Pavacic.

Most of the recent burns, including the burn conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service occurring at The Sayville Unit of Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge this month, are grassland burns. The Pine Forests remain mostly untouched and as a result they are overgrown.

“That’s an area where we haven’t really had in the way of prescribed burn in the past several years,” Pavacic said. “That’s something that we’re looking into undertaking very soon.”

The lack of wildfire training resources is the biggest limiting factor for forest prescribed burns, according Schwager. A prescribed burn requires the creation of a burn plan, which can only be developed by wildfire experts. Weather also plays a role in limiting burns.

“Some days they look at the weather many days in advance and the days looks good and some days they gather everyone out there in the fields and the wind speed doesn’t get under a certain speed and they don’t put any fire onto the ground,” Bill Fonda, spokesman for the DEC, said.

The next step for Long Island will be to coordinate a workshop with the North Atlantic Fire Exchange, which will help Long Island gain guidance from other prescribed fire programs like Massachusetts and New Jersey, according to Schwager.

“We need to get the buy in from public officials that management is necessary,” Schwager said. “That’s going to require us to start a dialogue and get a discussion going with some of these biologists, ecologists, public officials and the public.”

There are no planned forest prescribed burns for the foreseeable future.