Manuel Estrella 3rd Worries About Fire, and Loss of Truck

Earlier this month, the state reclaimed the brush breaker fire truck it loaned to the town of West Tisbury several years ago to fight fires in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

West Tisbury fire chief Manuel Estrella 3rd said the repossession is just one example of how the state is shirking its responsibility for caretaking the 5,168-acre state forest.

But in a telephone interview with the Gazette yesterday, a state official said that liability reasons - belatedly recognized - led the state to take back the truck.

"It puts West Tisbury in a bad situation and I want to make sure everyone knows it," Chief Estrella told the town selectmen about the repossession. He spoke at their June 6 meeting.

"You drive around the forest and you see how dry it is," he said.

Chief Estrella also said that the state has also not properly maintained the forest's fire lanes or fire breaks, which stop forest fires by preventing the flames from jumping. In addition, he said, thousands of dead pines that have not been cleared make the forest like a tinderbox.

The chief urged Islanders to write and call the state to demand more effort in the state forest, which was begun as a heath hen reserve in 1908 to protect the now-extinct bird.

"The state, in my opinion, has to step up to the plate. They don't even have a patrolman here like they did before," Chief Estrella told the Gazette. "The state forest is really a time bomb and it seems like someone has to die or a house burn down before they do something."

But when the state reclaimed its brush truck earlier this month, it also brought the West Tisbury fire department a 10-wheeled, 1972 army truck that was converted to a tank truck.

Chief Estrella told the selectmen it would not do the whole job of a brush truck, but acknowledged, "It's better than I thought it would be."

Unlike other fire trucks that are confined to the state forest's 33 miles of fire lanes, brush trucks can drive off-road, clearing their own path. At present, the fire department owns a 2006 brush truck. A new brush truck costs $400,000, Chief Estrella said.

The state originally lent West Tisbury the truck after one of the town's two brush trucks broke down several years ago. Chief Estrella said that fighting forest fires with only one brush truck is unsafe.

James DiMaio, acting chief of the state bureaus of forest fire control and forestry, told the Gazette yesterday that taking the loaned truck back and giving West Tisbury the surplus truck was a way to solve the liability problem associated with lending a truck to the town.

"I was advised by my legal counsel that we just can't do those types of things," Mr. DiMaio said. "I met with the fire chief and I proposed that we switch vehicles."

He contended that the state has been working hard to prevent fires in the state forest. 

"Since I'd say the winter of 2004, we have conducted a very large amount of fire lane and fuel break clearing [and] fuel reduction research on the Island. My estimation is that we've spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 to half a million dollars - primarily in federal funding - just in Manuel Correllus State Forest," Mr. DiMaio said.

"I agree with the fire chief that much work remains to be done and we're continually plugging away because we know that this work is necessary," he said. "We're talking about tens of millions of dollars to complete this project."

Mr. DiMaio said that a large amount of tree clearing has been done in recent years, particularly along the roads, fire lanes and bike trails. Between 75 and 80 per cent of the funding to prevent forest fires and protect endangered species in southeastern Massachusetts' state forests goes to the Vineyard, he said. The state also has plans to conduct prescribed burning, he said, but the weather has been an obstacle.

It costs $50 to $75 to cut down and grind up each tree, Mr. DiMaio said. Although it "seems like a shame" to leave the wood fiber there, he has had little luck in marketing the material as mulch, paper pulp or biomass, he said.

"When people have come out and looked, people are amazed at the progress we've made in the last three years," he said. "We also have a Firewise program. We're encouraging private land owners to work with our staff on this Firewise program to reduce fuels on private land . . . . What's happening in California today might happen on Martha's Vineyard if we don't get our fuels down to acceptable levels," he added.

Chief Estrella questioned the effectiveness of the Massachusetts Firewise program, which he said encourages residents to clear the trees around their homes. 

"This is the third time they've tried this program. The first two failed," Chief Estrella said. "That's because people don't want to [clear trees]. That's not why people live on the Vineyard."

The chief told the Gazette he believes it may be time for a group like the Nature Conservancy to take over management of the state forest.

"The state can't handle it. Let someone do it who can," he said, noting that the management of the state forest has been a problem for the 14 years he has been chief, and for the chiefs who came before him. The Vineyard should have a full-time state forest fire patrolman like it did from 2003 to 2004, he said.

At that time, patrolman Aaron Whiddon told the Gazette that his position was long overdue on the Island.

"Believe it or not, southeastern Massachusetts is the third most flammable place in the continental United States because of all the pitch pine and scrub oak," Mr. Whiddon said in a 2004 interview. "The Vineyard hasn't experienced a substantial forest fire, more than 50 acres, in about 40 or 50 years. That means the fuels have built up."

The last significant fire in the state forest occurred in July 1999. The fire burned up 15 to 20 acres and flames reached 25 feet high, the Gazette reported. About 120 volunteer firefighters and 20 vehicles fought the fire for seven straight hours and fire fighters stayed on the scene for two days. Chief Estrella told the Gazette after the fire that it was just the luck of the wind that the fire stopped when it did.

Chief Estrella said he would also like to see the Martha's Vineyard Airport get more involved with forest fire prevention.

"I haven't seen a plane crash yet in the airport," the chief told the selectmen. It's always in the state forest."