Pine Barrens Commission says it’s addressing firefighter concerns

Firefighters on the scene of Saturday’s brush fire in Flanders. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
Firefighters on the scene of Saturday’s brush fire in Flanders. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)


Firefighters in Flanders have been growing increasingly frustrated over the current condition of the woods there, which they say makes it difficult — and dangerous — to respond to and contain wildfires.

That frustration came to a boiling point during a fire in the Flanders woodlands Saturday that led to three brush trucks’ being damaged. Local fire chiefs then aired their grievances to RiverheadLocal.com, which published a story about the situation Sunday.

The biggest complaint concerns felled or dying oak trees, the result of a massive die-out that happened around 2008.

News-Review report from October 2009.

In Flanders, where firefighters are known as the “Keepers of the Pine Barrens,” Chief Joe Pettit said between getting brush trucks caught up on stumps and the trucks knocking over still-standing dead trees and toppling treetops on firefighters, just getting to a fire has become a challenge in and of itself.

“It just makes it very difficult to get to the fire, to put it out,” he said. “The trees on the ground make it difficult to drive over. Another issue we have is the dead trees that are standing — the tops break off and then they come down on top of the truck, which doesn’t make for a safe situation.

“On top of having to worry about the fire, which is a hazard, we have to worry about all these other hazards.”

He said the department has been complaining for years, but between county and state bureaucracies, nothing has gotten done.

But county and state officials say they are aware of the dead oaks issues — and other issues that could accelerate fires, such as too much fuel — in the woods in Flanders and elsewhere, and are taking steps to address these issues in the coming months.

“We are aware of the complaints,” said Pam Robinson, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “Under grant funding, the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission is currently conducting an assessment to see which fire lanes need clearing, and is also performing the actual remediation.”

On Monday, around the third anniversary of the Ridge-Manorville fire that burned over 1,100 acres of pine barrens in April 2012, Mr. Bellone announced that the county, partnering with the Central Pine Barrens Commission, would soon provide more than 10,000 volunteer firefighters with additional wildfire training, so firefighters are better prepared in the event of another large fire.

John Pavacic, the commission’s executive director, said in an interview Monday that the commission awarded $700,000 in contracts through a bidding process last April and is in the process of developing a plan to address safety issues in specific woodland areas from Ridge to Flanders.

The area in Flanders near where Saturday’s brush fire occurred, and the area the commission is planning to target for cleanup and controlled burns, is east of Country Road 104, west of Pleasure Drive and north of Sunrise Highway.

“The Pine Barrens is a fire-dependent ecosystem, and in the last 100 years we’ve engaged in fire suppression without periodic controlled fires, and you have a build-up of fuel, the natural debris that builds up on a forest floor,” Mr. Pavacic said. “Trees, branches, bark, etc. It builds up to the point where if you do have a wildfire that can lead up to an intense conflagration.

He said the commission is “working on a prescribed fire and some physical, maintenance work in that area.”

That work includes addressing trails and buffer areas, although removing dead trees over thousands of acres would not be feasible.

“There’s significant decomposition or decay already with some of the trees that are down,” he said.”If we can provide better road access, [firefighters] won’t have to go into the underbrush and come across a stump or other downed obstacles. It’s possible through their road network or pathway they’ll be able to at least pull out their hoses and drag hose lines to the fire.”

He also said dead trees are a significant habitat for a range of species such as owls and flying squirrels, and so removing the trees can negatively effect those animals.

But Mr. Pavacic said he can understand why local firefighters are frustrated.

“We’re just trying to get more done on the ground,” he said. “It’s just that unfortunately, it takes some time, but we’re not backing away from our responsibly to bring about proven fire and ecological management on the ground. We’ll continue to do that and work with the volunteer fire community in that regard.”

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