The smoke may have cleared from the controlled burn performed by the U.S. Navy last Wednesday on Noman’s Land, but questions remain this week as to whether more could have been done to alert the public and prevent the confusion that led to a barrage of calls to the Island communications center.
Officials at the Dukes County communications center last week received between 50 to 100 calls while the fire burned on Noman’s, the small uninhabited island off the southern coast of Chilmark.
The fire was part of a prescribed burn by the U.S. Navy to clear away underbrush and expose unexploded ordnance left on Noman’s during training exercises over the past five decades. Noman’s Land is part of the town of Chilmark, but is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Navy built an airfield on the southern edge of the island in 1942 that was used for bombing training during World War II.
The airfield was abandoned by the Navy between 1945 and 1954, although use of the bombing range continued until 1996. Following an effort to clear the island of ordnance in 1997, the island was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service for use as a wildlife refuge, primarily because it harbors many migratory birds.
Under the terms of a transfer agreement, the Navy is obligated to continue efforts to remove munitions from Noman’s Land.
Due to danger from unexploded ordnance, the island is closed to the public.
The controlled burn was performed last Wednesday by a subcontractor hired by the Navy and was reportedly started around 2:30 p.m. It burned until early evening. According to eyewitnesses, the fire first produced a thin black smoke that was carried away from the Vineyard by a steady northeast wind.
But around 4 p.m. the smoke reportedly turned into more of a billowy, gray haze that headed toward the Vineyard when the wind shifted and started to come from the south. Smoke and ash drifted over many areas of Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury.
David Barney, Base Realignment and Closure coordinator for the Navy, told the Gazette last week the fire was started from the air when helicopters dropped hundreds of spheres the size of ping pong balls filled with potassium permanganate that ignited as they hit the ground.
The spheres were dropped all across the 612-acre island.
Mr. Barney said the Navy had a limited window for the burn operation because U.S. Fish and Wildlife had imposed a May 10 deadline in order to protect migratory birds returning to the island in the coming weeks. He said the Navy was forced to push back the operation until last week due to a variety of considerations, including questions over funding.
Other than the profusion of calls to the Island communications center, the fire caused no problems. But some questioned why the Navy did not make more of an effort to alert local newspapers or police and fire departments.
Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll said there has been an informal agreement between the town and the Navy for years concerning the continued removal of munitions from Noman’s. The Navy has routinely involved the town in various efforts to clean up the island, including controlled burns, site visits and public notification, he said.
Mr. Carroll said the town received a letter last month from the state Department of Environmental Protection that was technically a letter of approval sent to the Navy that included a number of conditions.
Among other things, the conditions specify the prescribed burn must be conducted during periods of good atmospheric ventilation without causing a nuisance to surrounding communities, and that the fire departments and boards of health of all Island towns be notified in writing prior to ignition.
Contacted by the Gazette this week, Island boards of health said they had not been notified.
Another condition stipulates that all Island towns be notified within ten days of the burn. Mr. Carroll said he sent a letter to the towns in early April letting them know the Navy would be conducting the prescribed burn in the coming weeks. Mr. Carroll said he notified the communications center, the airport and all the town fire chiefs at 10 a.m. on the day of the burn.
He said the contractor in charge of the burn contacted Chilmark fire chief David Norton as well as the state DEP the day of the blaze. Mr. Carroll said he believes the Navy went through all the proper procedures — but he also agreed more could have been done to get word out to the public.
“I think they could have sent out a press release to the newspapers or found some other way to reach the public. It’s pretty evident there were a lot of people who didn’t know what was going on — that is fairly evident by the number of calls to the communications center,” he said, adding:
“It’s lucky we didn’t have a real emergency at the same time, because the call center was pretty busy.”
Gus Ben David, former director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, said controlled burns keep the grasslands from turning into shrubs and forest which in turn preserves habitat for many rare and endangered birds. He said Noman’s Land serves as an important stopover for migratory birds that travel all along the eastern coast.
He also reflected on the dichotomy of the long history of military bombing on the island. “In a way, the bombing might have been the best thing for Noman’s Land because it kept people from going over there and buildings homes and opening hotels. That is pristine wildlife paradise that has remained unchanged because it is off limits to people,” Mr. Ben David said.
Susan Whiting, bird columnist for the Gazette, agreed, but she also questioned the timing of the burn.
“There are birds on eggs and some with young over there already. Did the Navy want scrambled eggs for breakfast or perhaps squab? And doesn’t Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife have some control over Noman’s? It seems they should know better than to burn in May,” Ms. Whiting said.