Local officials, environmentalists suggest ways to help firefighters battle brush fires

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | A firefighter drags a hose during this month's wild fire in Riverhead Town.

Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said Wednesday that he believes the county should drill fire suppression wells in the Pine Barrens to help firefighters battle brush fires. But some environmentalists said that installing more hydrants should not be the first step taken to help reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires.

Mr. Romaine said he will introduce a resolution in the county Legislature this Tuesday instructing the Department of Health Services’ well drilling unit to install fire wells capable of providing 400 gallons of water per minute on county parkland within the Pine Barrens.

He said local firefighters had poor access to water supplies during the recent wildfires in the area. The wells would be a fast way to provide more support for firefighters’ efforts “without spending millions on new, unnecessary, public water mains,” he said.

With the right county support, he added, the well drilling unit could also install smaller wells quickly. The county would also be able to seek agreements with local towns and property owners to install additional wells on non-county land.

“Our volunteers, led by Elio Zapparrata and the Manorville Fire Department, did a tremendous job fighting these fires,” Mr. Romaine said. “However, the lack of water in the Pine Barrens continues to be a major concern. With little development and even fewer water mains, water is a scarce resource.”

But environmental activists and officials say that although the proposed wells would probably not be detrimental to the Pine Barren ecosystem, other steps, like scheduled controlled burns, would be more effective in preventing brush fires from getting out of control.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the DEC doesn’t think having additional wells will affect the area’s water supply and said the state uses “prescribed fires” on state lands to help reduce the amount of fuel for wildfires. The controlled burns, in addition to other steps such as fire breaks and timber and firewood harvesting, have proven effective in reducing the risk of brush fires.

Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper agreed, saying wells alone would not do enough to reduce the risk of large fires and would only assist in putting them out once they’ve begun.

“There’s no problem taking water from the Pine Barrens,” he added, “The question is how would this work with other efforts to manage fire [there].”

Mr. Amper said that, done correctly, controlled burns would actually benefit the ecosystem.

“The Pine Barrens have been burning for more than 10,000 years,” he said. “It is a fire-dependent ecosystem. They should burn an average of once every 15 years. The areas that were involved in the last two fires hadn’t burned in 60.”

Mr. Amper said the county should take “proactive” steps to reduce wildfires by burning roughly 1,000 acres over the course of the year in smaller fires to prevent massive fires from swelling out of control.

“You have to work with Mother Nature or she’s going to fight with you and eventually she’s going to win,” he said.

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