Plan to clear fire lanes in Flanders woodlands set for November

A proposal to clear fire lanes and reduce the amount of underbrush in the Flanders woodlands and open up lanes for firefighters battling blazes in the woods is expected to begin in November.

The woods in Flanders are currently filled with dying or dead trees that block paths that had been cleared for fire fighting purposes — however their current conditions put fire fighters and nearby homes in danger as a result.

Related story: Pine Barrens Commission says it’s addressing firefighter concerns

Will Bowman of Lane Use Ecological Services of Medford and James Remuzzi of Sustainable Solutions of West Virginia gave a wildfire management presentation at Wednesday’s Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission meeting.

The plan lists a 128-acre area around Pleasure Drive in Flanders as one of the four highest priority projects of 42 parkland sites considered by the commission.

Pleasure Drive is surrounded by state and county parkland, but also has a lot of residences in that area.

Before work can begin, the plan is required to undergo an environmental impact study through September, as well as a public outreach process. The program will be presented to the Flanders Fire Department, the Flanders Riverside and Northampton Community Association and the county parks department, Mr. Bowman said.

“Community input will feed into this,” Mr. Bowman said, adding that county and state Department of Environmental Conservation approval is also needed.

Officials are already scheduled to speak at the July 13 FRNCA meeting, said John Pavacic, the executive director of the commission.

In an interview after the meeting, Flanders Fire Chief Joe Pettit expressed frustration that his department hasn’t been apprised of what’s being planned in his district, or even told the issue was being discussed at the Pine Barrens commission meeting.

“I really don’t know what what they have in store so far,” he said. “I had a 10 minute conversation with them about a month ago on a preliminary plan where they showed me a map. I asked them who came up with this, because we’re the ones who need to figure out what to clear. I don’t think an outside agency should tell us what we need, or at least, we should be involved in what’s going on. Our suggestions should be taken into consideration.

“That was all I’ve heard.  After that I haven’t heard anything more since then. The frustrating part for us is that we are the ones with the issue and we’re the last ones to get the information. It’s my guys that are out there. I want to know what’s going on because I’m ultimately responsible for my guys.”

Although the parkland extends as far west as County Road 105, the proposal discussed Wednesday calls for clearing paths and eliminating “fuel” for forest fires in the areas within 400 to 500 feet of homes.

The plan before the commission proposes to create a 3-mile long, 12-foot wide access lane for fire trucks in the woods off Pleasure Drive.  It also plans to conduct “prescribed burns” to burn up some of the dead wood that’s on the ground and acting as fuel for forest fires, as well as selectively cutting brush that could catch fire.

“Reduced fuels lower fire intensity and allow for safer and more effective fire suppression,” Mr. Bowman said.

Residents and emergency service personnel will be notified before the prescribed burns begin, Mr. Remuzzi said.

“Are they going to see something dramatically different when they look out their back doors than what they are seeing now?” asked Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who is a member of the commission.

“In the areas that are getting treated, especially to the north, there will be a noticeable difference,” Mr. Remuzzi said. “They will be able to see through the woods, and there will be an aesthetic improvement.”

The access lanes and “fuel” suppression methods must be maintained regularly to be effective, Mr. Bowman said.

The plan calls for work on using mowers and chainsaws to thin out out the underbrush and dead branches to begin in November and continue until March. The plan also calls for prescribed burns in several areas toward the southern boundary of Pleasure Drive next spring.

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