Edgartown selectmen this week affirmed the use of fire as a land management tool as long as members of The Nature Conservancy continue to work closely with the town's fire chief.
Joel R. Carlson, a fire manager for The Nature Conservancy, came before the selectmen to answer concerns about the risk of setting fires in wooded areas. The meeting was attended by representatives of the town conservation commission and the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.
Edith Potter, a former selectman and representative of the conservation commission, told selectmen she thought the work of The Nature Conservancy was diversifying the Vineyard natural community, bringing it back to the way she remembered it years ago. She praised their work at managing conservation land at Katama at the Flynn property. She said she was impressed by the use of prescribed fires in open areas at Wasque and Quansoo as a way to keep fields and meadows open.
The subject of fire came up among selectmen last month. Selectman Arthur Smadbeck asked his colleagues and the fire chief whether the work being done by the nature group was worth the risk. He said good intentions by environmentalists in the Midwest had resulted in large, uncontrolled fires.
In consultation with the fire chief, the board of selectmen agreed to invite representatives in to answer their questions. They all met together Tuesday afternoon.
In the audience were concerned residents. John Pose, a member of the board of directors of the Boldmeadow subdivision property owners association, expressed his concerns about the use of fire. Mr. Pose identified himself as a fire chief for Bristol, Conn. He said: "I don't think it is worth the risk. There are other ways to accomplish their ecological goals. I don't think starting a fire in the state forest is worth it."
Mr. Pose asked the selectmen what credentials the fire manager for The Nature Conservancy might have to start fires. "I'd like to know if he can guarantee a burn." He said he also wanted to know whether the setting of fires would violate any federal clean air regulations.
Mr. Carlson, keeping notes on the questions, stood before the selectmen and cited a long list of credentials, ranging from 11 years of experience to having a bachelor's and master's degree in forestry. He told the selectmen that he has overseen 125 fires, and that he has specialized experience in dealing with property similar to the Vineyard. He said he follows a strict list of guidelines in preparation for a burn. "I am one of three fire bosses in the Northeast. I am under constant scrutiny." He said one bad mistake on his part and he could lose those highly valued credentials.
He said The Nature Conservancy conducted 454 prescribed burns last year, 416 fires the year before and 436 fires the year before, without one fire escaping. "I can't guarantee you that a fire won't escape. But I don't do a burn unless it is safe. If for a moment we are uncomfortable, we can shut a fire down. Even if I believe the fire is safe and another has a question, we shut it down."
Mr. Carlson said he brings a lot of personnel and fire fighting apparatus to a burn, enough equipment to fight a fire apart from the one they are burning. He explained that prior to setting a fire, he will consult with the Edgartown fire chief on all aspects of preparation.
Mr. Carlson said that provisions of the federal Clean Air Act allow prescribed burning. He said among the factors he must consider is where the smoke will go. "I will admit I can't always be certain where the smoke will go. But I will shut it down," he said, if it becomes evident that smoke is going into a residential area.
Mr. Carlson said that in areas that have had prescribed burns, the property is far more resistent to future fires than are areas that have not been burned. Fires do lower the fuel load on the land and make it a good deal safer.
Fire chief Tony Bettencourt said that he will not grant a fire permit to The Nature Conservancy for the burning of the state forest. "I am concerned about the general public. The Nature Conservancy doesn't have it easy with me. I am tough."
Chief Bettencourt said that fire as a management tool is nothing new to the Island. He said he could recall 40 years ago when prescribed fires were used to manage the same areas on the Vineyard. "We were doing it then. It isn't new. But there are new issues now, and they are valid," Mr. Bettencourt said.
Harriet Hoar of Boldmeadow said: "I am heartened that he [the chief] would never allow a fire in the state forest. There have been a lot of controlled burns in the country. These are professionals, and their fires have gotten away from them."
John Varkonda, a superintendent for the state forest, said efforts are under way to widen fire lanes in the state forest.
After an hour of discussion between the parties on the use of fire, Mr. Smadbeck said: "I feel a lot more comfortable now. I feel a lot more comfortable having heard what the fire chief has said." Mr. Smadbeck said: "Maybe there is something we can do to lower the risk of fire at the state forest."
"I share your concerns," said Mr. Varkonda. He said the state is sending a bulldozer down to help with fire lane management.
Chief Bettencourt said the community needs more brushbreakers. "Edgartown used to have three. We don't have any now."
Selectman Fred B. Morgan said: "I am in favor of these prescribed burns by The Nature Conservancy. They do an outstanding job. I think they should continue to work with the fire chief. I think it would be a shame to allow these properties to grow out of control again."