Against a backdrop of prolonged summer drought, the threat of wildfire in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest is now high, and Island fire chiefs this week issued grave words of caution to the public.
"I just think everyone should be aware. If they see something smoldering, to not be afraid to call it in," said Edgartown fire chief Antone (Tony) Bettencourt. Yesterday, Chief Bettencourt and all the other Island fire chiefs received a fax from the state fire warden Robert Crocker alerting them to concerns about underground fires. The memorandum reported that fires can move through dry soils at depths of 18 inches.
Earlier this month Tisbury fire chief John Schilling shut down all campfires at the Martha's Vineyard Family Campground because of his concerns about the danger of fire with the extremely dry conditions. "My biggest concern now is people at home using backyard fireplaces," Mr. Schilling said. The chief said any burning that sends up sparks or floating embers into the air is a potential fire threat.
There is plenty of water underground, but on the surface the Island is a tinderbox, fire chiefs said.
"This is incredible. This is the driest it has ever been," Chief Bettencourt said. "A good rainstorm isn't going to help, for water will just run off and not penetrate the soil."
The drought-like conditions have caused foliage on the tallest oak trees to shrivel. Dirt roads are now dust roads. At last weekend's Agricultural Society fair in West Tisbury, crews watered the grounds to keep dust down.
On Wednesday afternoon a line of rain passed briefly over the Vineyard. The National Weather Service cooperative station in Edgartown recorded .06 inch of rainfall; bringing total rainfall for the month to .09 inch. With only a few days left in the month, August could be one of the driest months on record.
Total rainfall for July was 2.06 inches.
Oak Bluffs fire chief Dennis P. Alley said he has not seen the Vineyard this dry in his entire career on the fire department. Mr. Alley said he wants to post more signs alerting the public to the extremely dry conditions. At the intersection of Edgartown-West Tisbury and Airport Roads, Smokey the Bear holds his wildfire conditions sign for all passersby to see. The alert is now high.
John Varkonda, superintendent for the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, said the 127-acre state forest on Nantucket has been closed to the public, along with other conservation land.
"They jump a little quicker there because they are two hours more from help. They have one small fire department and we have a lot more resources over here," Mr. Varkonda said.
He said there is no plan to close the 5,168-acre state forest, situated in the center of the Island. "We've done it in the past but it is almost impossible to close. There are 33 miles of fire lanes and 14 miles of paved bike paths. Even if we put signs up, people would ignore it. We haven't considered it this year," Mr. Varkonda said.
Steps have been taken in the last year to reduce the potential for uncontrollable fire in the forest. Fire lanes were widened and fallen timber cleared away. One fire lane near the West Tisbury School was widened from 20 feet to 60 feet.
"They did a little bit of clearing but it is not enough," declared West Tisbury fire chief Manuel Estrella 3rd. Chief Estrella said there is still too much fire fuel on the ground, and he also raised concerns about the absence of Aaron Whidden, the state forest fire patrolman who was called out of state to help fight fires in Idaho.
The chief said is he genuinely worried about conditions in the state forest. "It is really a time bomb," he said.
Chief Bettencourt said he is happy with the work that has been done in the forest. "I think it is much better. They have done a lot of improvements that are long term," the chief said. "I am not going to be one to complain, as long as they are doing something," he added.
Bob Rodrigues, district fire warden for Plymouth County, said the problem extends throughout the region.
"We've been in droughts that are real droughts. These drought conditions are more regional and not the whole state," he said. Mr. Rodrigues oversees the 14,000-acre Myles Standish State Forest in Carver and Plymouth, where there is currently also concern about fire.
Doug Dias, operator of the 75-foot fire tower at Christiantown in West Tisbury, said miraculously there have been no fires this summer.
"We had a dry summer two years ago. I reported 18 fires in the month of August. We haven't reported a fire this summer. We have been very fortunate," he said.
Mr. Dias said he believes public awareness has helped, and in particular he said he likes the Smokey the Bear sign.
But he also said he is just as concerned about fires starting on private property as in the state forest. "A broken bottle in the woods will start a fire. Two years ago 80 per cent of the 18 fires reported in August were related to smoking material. It was a burning cigarette, a burning cigar," he said.
Chief Alley agreed public awareness is key. He said he too likes the Smokey the Bear display at the edge of the forest. "I think it is a good deterrent," he said. "There should be more at other places."