Why Prescribed Burning Is Hard To Do In New York

fromWSHU

One of the easiest ways to manage a severe wildfire is prescribed burning — intentionally lighting a forest on fire in order to burn off what would otherwise be dangerous amounts of underbrush. But prescribed burning is expensive, time consuming and difficult to do in densely populated areas.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The Northeast is having a dry spring after an even dryer winter. The result is something you most often hear about in western states - wild fires. Much of the region is now under a brush fire warning and emergency crews are working quickly to catch up on wildfire prevention methods used by their colleagues out west. Charles Lane, from member station WSHU, has this report.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: The Long Island Pine Barrens are a patchwork of rural woodlands tightly intertwined with thousands of homes about 80 miles east of New York City. It was here that a 20-foot wall of flames came within feet of Anthony Panerella's backyard.

ANTHONY PANERELLA: The roar of it is what I remember. It sounded like you took like 10 freight trains and put them together. It was like a rrrr, like a roar.

LANE: More than 1,100 acres burned that day. Compared to the Western U.S., that's not much. But firefighters here fought it vigorously, carving out small protected islands around houses amidst a sea of charred forest.

PANERELLA: There was a brush truck right there. There was trucks lined up right there with multiple hoses, probably like 10, 15 guys right here just putting it all out. I mean, look at it. It was right here.

LANE: One of the easiest ways to manage severe wildfire is prescribed burning, intentionally lighting a forest on fire in order to burn off what would otherwise be dangerous amounts of underbrush.

MARILYN JORDAN: Doing prescribed burns is expensive, and time consuming and difficult.

LANE: Marilyn Jordan is a plant ecologist with Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit aimed at preserving wild land. The Conservancy advocates for prescribed burning and also helps carry it out. Jordan says there's actually a way to calculate how much prescribed burning should be done. It depends on the environment, but for the 150,000 acres of Long Island's Pine Barrens she'd normally suggest burning more than 1,000 acres a year.

JORDAN: And we can't do that in a densely populated area like Long Island with as much flammable vegetation as we have and the lack of good weather days, the lack of trained staff, you could never burn 1,000 or 2,000 acres a year.

LANE: By targeting key areas you can get away with burning less, maybe 200 acres. Last year, New York managed about half of that in pine barrens. Jordan says even small amounts are difficult, especially because of how land is owned on the East Coast.

JORDAN: In the West you've got huge tracks of land without many people, and it's all owned by the federal government or other agencies that can have kind of a freehand to do it. And in the East, we've got little bits of vegetation that's flammable scattered with people around it.

LANE: Having a single agency owning all the land makes coordination easier when it comes to getting burning permits, land access, and working with various environmental regulations. Because charitable donations lagged in the economic downturn, groups like the Nature Conservancy cut back on how much prescribed burning they helped with. This has had a most noticeable impact in New England, according to Bill Paterson, who teaches prescribed burning for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

BILL PATERSON: It's getting better. People realize, now, that it could be done. They haven't figured out just how to do it across organizational and state and property ownership lines.

LANE: Paterson hopes that as the dry, hot weather stretches on this summer, that the different government agencies will see more of a need to work with each other.

For NPR New, I'm Charles Lane.

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