Fighting Fire With Fire -April/May 2012

by: Joshua H. Balling

WILDFIRE. It can be devastating, destroying homes and property and forcing the evacuation of hundreds, even thousands, of residents as it sweeps across the landscape unhindered.

While Nantucket has been spared such devastation over the last century, wildfires in 1949 and 1968 burned hundreds of acres and threatened multiple homes. More recently, brush fires in Surfside, Dionis and the Middle Moors held the potential for great destruction before being thwarted by good fortune and hard work by the Nantucket Fire Department.

But fire can also be beneficial, preserving rare plants and animals threatened by the encroachment of invasive species. When harnessed and applied properly, fire is a valuable conservation tool for organizations like the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and Nantucket Islands Land Bank in maintaining the ecological diversity of thousands of acres of pristine open space.

In the coming months, the Conservation Foundation – which has been conducting prescribed burns on the island since the 1980s and oversees more than 6,000 acres of open space – will spearhead an effort to address both the destructive and beneficial properties of fire: with fire. The organization, working with a number of other groups, including the Nantucket Fire Department, is in the process of developing a comprehensive prescribed burning and wildfire risk-reduction plan for its extensive holdings.

The idea is to identify those areas most in need of prescribed burns for ecological reasons, and those in greatest danger from uncontrolled brush fires, where the so-called “fuel load” of highly-combustible scrub oak and other shrubs is greatest and closest to human habitation. After that, a burn schedule will be developed based on available resources and priority.

“We’ve been around for almost 50 years, and for much of that time our main focus has been acquisition, but we’re starting to really seriously think about managing the properties we own, not only to get the benefit of fire for ecological resources, but to provide for the safety of the people who live around the properties, by developing a management plan,” said Karen Beattie, manager of the Foundation’s department of science and stewardship.


But first, what exactly is a prescribed burn, and what is its purpose?

Sometimes called a controlled burn, a prescribed burn is defined as “the controlled application of fire to the land to accomplish specific conservation or land-management goals.”

Fire is important in maintaining habitats for many species of plants and animals. Historically, lightning caused numerous fires, and Native Americans burned areas to clear them for agriculture, improve forage for game species, stimulate berry and acorn production, and ease travel. Many native plants and animals are dependent on periodic fires for their reproduction, growth and survival.

“I can remember (former Foundation maintenance manager) Bob McGrath telling us stories about going out dragging burning oil-soaked rags behind a vehicle when the wind was blowing toward the ocean. The Native Americans lit the landscape on fire to attract shorebirds to the area so they could hunt them, and to clear the land for planting,” Beattie said.

Throughout much of the country, including Nantucket, development, combined with more effective firefighting methods, has stopped fire from moving across the land as it once did. Prescribed burning is now used to return fire to certain areas in a controlled fashion so that it may continue its historic, vital role in shaping the ecosystem. Prescribed burning also reduces the buildup of dead wood and other debris, decreasing the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

“Most of the rare species here benefit from fire. From an ecological perspective, that’s a good thing. From a public-safety perspective, it can reduce the potential for danger to human life and property,” Beattie said.

Prescribed burns are endorsed by federal land-management agencies and major conservation organizations, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy.

“A lot of people think prescribed fire is the same as wildfire. It’s not, it’s a management tool, surgically putting fire back onto a landscape with development, with houses, nearby, where fire may have been a beneficial thing naturally at one time, but needs to be managed more aggressively,” said Joel Carlson, the Foundation’s prescribed fire manager who has also worked for the state and The Nature Conservancy.

“Prescribed fire is exceptionally good, while not natural, at mimicking something natural. It’s the best tool we have to maintain grasslands and shrublands. When we conduct a burn, we can prescribe the conditions, and while we can’t direct exactly what bush it’s going to burn or not burn, it adds variability, and nature likes that variability. With prescribed fire, we can pick and choose when we apply it. If there are changes (in the weather or other conditions), because we are planning it, we can deal with it. Wildfire on its own can become catastrophic very quickly,” he said.

Each year, prescribed burns are conducted around New England by government agencies and private conservation organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Nantucket Islands Land Bank and Massachusetts Audubon Society. Burns can range in size from over 100 acres in remote areas to just a few acres in more populated locations. In Southeastern New England, burns are regularly conducted on Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands.


On Nantucket, prescribed burns to preserve habitats for rare plants and animals have been conducted by the Foundation in a number of places, most notably Head of the Plains near Madaket, where fire is used to protect one of the last sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands remaining in the country.

Provided they have plenty of sun, endangered plants like bushy rockrose, sandplain flax, New England blazing star, papillose nut-sedge and sandplain blue-eyed grass thrive in the nutrient-poor sandy soils of the area, while Eastern silvery aster populates the Middle Moors, St. Andrew’s cross prefers the east end of the island and broom crowberry is found predominantly in the Middle Moors and Maddequecham Valley. But encroachment by scrub oak and other shrub species blocks out the sun from the low-lying plants and threatens to overtake their habitat.

“The vegetation needs fire. It has adapted to being periodically burned, and benefits from being burned. If you don’t, other species come in, outshade them, and crowd them out,” Beattie said.

“Scrub oak is not an invasive species, it’s native to Nantucket. We’re not trying to eradicate scrub oak, which we couldn’t do if we wanted to, but rather trying to manage it, and prevent it from turning into a pitch pine barren and being a problem for other species,” she added.

Pitch pine is also a problem, as it is incredibly flammable and taller than scrub oak, its burning embers able to travel hundreds of yards on the wind.

“When you look at old aerial photographs of the middle moors, there were virtually no pitch pines, just a stand along Old South Road down near the airport. All of a sudden we have a tongue of pines extending into the middle moors from wind-driven germination,” Foundation executive director Jim Lentowski said.

Fire is a natural and effective means of managing growth, Beattie said. It allows not only the desired plants to survive, but also animals like the endangered northern harrier to hunt its preferred prey, the meadow vole, in the open grasslands that result from the burn.

“Scrub-oak barrens have a whole suite of rare moths associated with them. When it rejuvenates, the fresh young shoots attract moths,” Beattie said. “Northern harriers benefit from the smaller shrubs.”

“There are fewer and fewer areas in the country that can manage for those species, if they still exist there,” Lentowski said. “There’s been too much growth and development in places like Long Island, which used to be exactly the way it is here, but has all gone to subdivisions. Preserving biodiversity is very important, especially when it doesn’t exist elsewhere.”

While fire is incredibly effective in beating back the spread of highly- flammable scrub species, the threatened grasses and wildflowers are able to survive – and even thrive – through periodic burns thanks to their extensive below-ground root systems. Many heath species bloom profusely following a fire, and some even require fire to reproduce, Beattie said.

Nor is fire a real danger to animals. Birds and larger species like rabbits and deer can easily outrun the flames and find cover in nearby unburned areas. Smaller animals such as mice, voles and shrews seek shelter in underground burrows where they can avoid the heat. Burns are also timed to avoid periods when young animals may be vulnerable, she said.

Unlike mowing or brush-cutting, which has a uniform impact and leaves combustible material behind, fire usually produces a patchwork of burned and unburned areas because of variability in its temperature, intensity and rate of spread. As a result, a mix of ecologically-diverse habitats is created.

“When you burn, you’re reducing the fuel load. It’s going up in smoke and going away. You’re getting rid of not only the above-ground biomass, but litter on the ground, and it opens up soil for the germination of more species. It’s not just one big monoculture. You’re looking for a mosaic of species, from both an ecological and a fire-safety perspective,” Beattie said.

“The key thing we want is functional ecosystems. Most ecosystems, as an ecologist out west I taught with once said, are out of whack,” Carlson said. “The reason we do management, do fire, is to knock them back into whack. They’ll never be completely back in synch because of how we’ve altered our environment, but fire helps.”


The key to a safe and effective burn is planning. Before burn crews go anywhere near their protective yellow suits and head out into the moors, a tremendous amount of work is done. A detailed document called a “prescription” is drawn up that describes the expected fire behavior based on conditions such as relative humidity, wind speed and direction, temperature and dryness of vegetation, as well as how the fire will be ignited and contained.

“This is not just group of people putting on fancy yellow outfits and starting a fire. A series of decisions is made beforehand, based on long-term weather conditions and other factors, in addition to prepping the area surrounding the fire so it’s controlled and contained in the area it is supposed to be,” Lentowski said.

Once the conditions are favorable, and the plan is approved by the fire department, the physical work begins. Burn crews wearing fire-resistant clothing under the direction of a burn boss ignite the prescribed areas, which have been delineated by “fire breaks” – roads or trails, mowed or plowed areas, streams or ponds, or another recently-burned area – to prevent the fire’s spread.

During the burn, the breaks are constantly patrolled by crew members using backpack water-sprayers and specialized fire tools to ensure the burn remains contained. On larger burns, firefighting apparatus like tanker trucks or engines might also be stationed nearby. Once completed, the burn is safely extinguished.

“The whole idea behind conducting a prescribed burn is to prevent intense fire behavior when the conditions are wrong, kind of like what happened out on Eel Point Road last year,” Lentowski said. “It could have been a major disaster if the fire department didn’t catch it. It was windy, and there had been no rain for weeks. The whole idea is putting fire on the ground when conditions are favorable.”

Smoke-management is also important, to make sure the burn isn’t impacting schools and neighbors, Beattie said.

Other “mechanical” methods are also employed to address scrub oak and other species where fire can’t be safely used.

“There’s brush-cutting and mowing; and other options like ‘limbing,’ where you remove lower limbs so fire can’t reach up to the limbs of trees; and thinning, or removing selected trees,” Beattie said.

“Clearly when we get close to houses, fire is not going to be employed because you don’t want to take that chance,” Lentowski said.

The Nantucket Fire Department also works closely with burn crews by staying abreast of burn schedules, and keeping in constant communication while the burns are in progress.

“We support them, from our perspective, for keeping the fuel load down. Our part of the process is to stay informed. Any time someone is planning to do a burn, they come in to let us know. Then there is direct communication with us during the burn, in case something gets out of hand. We keep in contact by radio,” Nantucket fire chief Mark McDougall said.

“We work on the response side. We have the ability to carry more water. But we’ve also called them in on occasion to help us fight wildfires. We’re also involved in awareness. We’ll go out and visit homeowners’ associations and talk about keeping brush away from homes in areas where wildfires could get out of hand.”


When allowed to burn out of control, wildfires can be incredibly destructive, threatening homes – and lives.

“In a wildfire situation, it creates its own microclimate. The wind swirls, and things happen that don’t happen under tightly-controlled conditions. You don’t want fire happening like that,” Lentowski said.

Nantucket has had two major wildfires in the past century: The July 1949 blaze off Fairgrounds Road that torched more than 1,300 acres, spread into the State Forest and jumped Old South Road in three places; and an April 1968 fire that devastated 400 acres of pinelands along Old South Road.

Numerous smaller to medium-sized brush fires have also occurred over the years, including one in April 2007 in the Middle Moors that actually began as a prescribed burn before flaring out of control and torching 75 acres; another in April 2010 that burned approximately 30 acres of hilly terrain in the moors between Milestone and Polpis Roads, that was believed started by a discarded cigarette; and one last year off Eel Point Road that was fanned by high winds and barely contained by firefighters and burn crews before being extinguished.

Scrub oak and pitch pine in particular are highly flammable. They burn quickly and their burning embers can be carried hundreds of yards by Nantucket’s frequent high winds. Over the past few decades, they’ve begun to proliferate extensively in the island’s more open areas.

“Thankfully, Nantucket has never experienced the need to evacuate, and although some really awful fires have occurred here, we’ve been lucky. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen,” Lentowski said. “That’s why we need a plan. When I first arrived on Nantucket, the fourth milestone area was predominantly open grassland, not scrub-covered. Over the last 45 to 50 years, nature has taken over, and changed them from grassland to scrub-land to scrub-oak thickets. The time has come for us to look long and hard to figure out what we need to do, and can afford to do,” he said. The point of developing a comprehensive plan to reduce the risk of wildfires on an island 30 miles out to sea without the realistic benefit of mutual aid from other fire departments is simple.

“We need to take some of this land back before ‘the big one’,” said Tom Lennon, the Foundation’s director of finance and administration. “It’s a whole lot better to prescribe a plan for fire than have a wildfire at 2 o’clock in the morning. The island needs a plan in a huge way. It’s a tinderbox. This is an urgent priority for us. That’s why we want to get moving.” Lentowski agreed.

“What we’re talking about is a prescribed-burning plan supplemented with a wildfire risk-reduction plan. We’re asking what we can do to minimize the chance of wildfires. What strategies are best employed close to homes, and what can be done on properties where putting people and buildings at risk is not so much of a concern?”

Even with all its open space, the island is an ever-changing landscape, and areas that were once devoid of houses are now bustling developments. Those areas are of particular concern, Lentowski said.

“In 1971, when I arrived on Nantucket, at Tupancy Links there was a single row of pine trees along the Capaum Road edge of the property. Now there are some enormous stands of Japanese black pine scattered throughout the property, many of which are dead, They tend to live 15-20 years, which gives a sense of how fast the problem can start,” he said. “You don’t have to have been on Nantucket that long to realize the character of Polpis Road has changed. When I first arrived, there was hardly any cedar trees. Now you drive between the Life-Saving Museum and Moors End Farm, and it’s a forest of cedar trees, and those things are equally as volatile as pines,” he said.

Tom Nevers is also a priority, for a number of reasons.

“On the east end of our Tom Nevers holdings, there are hundreds of houses there now, where in 1975, 1980, there was nothing there,” Lentowski said.

The Foundation is coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Tom Nevers on the burn plan. The Corps is in the midst of an intensive survey of several thousand acres in the area to determine the location of unexploded rockets left behind when the area was a military training ground.

“We had plans to start mechanically treating the pitch pines in the Maddequecham Valley and the shrubs coming in there, and heard from the Department of Defense that they were concerned about munitions left behind from the World War II era. So there’s been no mowing and no burning there,” Lentowski said.

“A lot of times these things piggy-back on each other. The Army Corps has indicated a willingness to work with us. They’ll put cut-lines in places where they would make sense for fire breaks to be established, particularly along New South Road and Wigwam Road,” he said.


The efforts to reduce the potential for wildfires will also benefit the environment, Beattie said.

“Most of the things we can do to improve public safety, will improve the ecological benefits of the properties as well. They are fulfilling conservation measures, and providing public safety at the same time.”

The Foundation hopes to continue working on the plan and raising aware- ness of wildfire management over the spring and summer, and possibly begin burning in the fall.

“We’re going to have to reach out to the community, and really let them know that it will be to everyone’s benefit to reduce the fuel load,” Lentowski said.

“The plan we’re developing now is to get more fire on the ground to prevent wildfires, in conjunction with creating fire breaks,” Lennon said. “It’s the next logical step.”

Initial areas targeted for big burns include Head of the Plains, Sanford Farm and the Middle Moors.

Once the plan is approved by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and set in motion, “we’re going to get a professional crew over here and burn as much as we can,” Lennon said. 


When the risk of wildfire is high, it is important to take precautionary measures to keep your home safe. Conditions beyond your control may cause a wildfire in your area, but you can take steps to keep your home and your family much safer. Wildfire losses can be minimized if homeowners take the time to protect their homes and take some effective precautions.

How to Keep Your Home Safe From Wildfire:

  •  Make sure that firefighters can find your home. Will emergency vehicles have easy access to the house? Is your address clearly visible from the road? Is the road and your driveway accessible to emergency vehicles?
  •  Sweep gutters, roofs and eaves regularly and remove dead branches from around or near chimneys. Burning embers can collect in the same space that leaves and pine needles do. Remove leaves and needles from cellar-window wells and from corners and crevices around the outside of your home.
  •  Create a safety zone around your home. Wood piles and debris should be kept as far away from the exterior walls of the home as possible. Remove portions of any tree extending within 10 feet of the flue opening of any stove or chimney.
  •  Landscape vegetation should be spaced so that fire cannot be carried to the structure or surrounding vegetation. Clear underbrush and dead “tree fall” on a regular basis from your property. This reduces fuel loads and slows fire-spread. Cleared household brush and forestry debris may be eliminated by obtaining a burn permit from the Nantucket Fire Department. Guidelines and additional safety tips are issued with the permit. Permits are issued between Jan. 15 and May 1.

Additional Ways to Prevent a Wildfire:

  •  Contact 911 if you notice an unattended or out-of-control fire. 
  •  Outdoor cooking fires present a high fire risk. Position the grill well away from siding, deck railings and out from under eaves and overhanging branches. Extinguish all coals with water until they are cool to the touch. For gas-fueled grills, check for leaks and worn equipment.
  •  Maintain a screen constructed of non-flammable material over the flue opening of every chimney or stovepipe. Mesh openings of the screen should not exceed half an inch.
  •  Do not discard cigarettes, matches and smoking materials from moving vehicles, or anywhere on park grounds. Be certain to completely extinguish cigarettes before disposing of them.

If You Need to Evacuate:

  •  If advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Do not waste any time trying to save property. Once out, stay out! Never go back into a burning building for any reason. Preventing loss of life is primary, property is secondary.
  •  Know your evacuation route ahead of time and prepare an evacuation check-list and emergency supplies.
  •  Close all windows, vents and doors to prevent a draft.
  •  Shut off propane or fuel-oil supplies and electrical sources to the building.
  • If a wildfire happens in your area and you want to save your home, think twice about it. This can be extremely dangerous. Wildfire is known to change direction on a second’s notice and begin to burn more out of control than you could imagine. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way to save your house. Get out when you are told it’s time to get out. Do everything you can to keep your home safe from wildfire by taking preventative measures at all times. Although the thought of losing a home can be devastating, losing your life is worse.
  •  Dispose of stove or fireplace ashes and charcoal briquettes only after soaking them in a metal pail of water.
  •  Store gasoline in an approved safety can away from occupied buildings.
  •  Propane tanks should be far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire. Keep area clear of flammable vegetation.
  •  All combustibles such as firewood, picnic tables, boats, etc. should be kept away from structures. 
  •  A garden hose should be connected to a working outlet.

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