Towns hit by storms on guard for fires

Fear that downed drying trees may fuel large inferno

Brimfield State Forest was damaged by the tornado. There’s now more drying timber and vegetation on the ground than normal. Brimfield State Forest was damaged by the tornado. There’s now more drying timber and vegetation on the ground than normal. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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Nearly seven weeks after deadly tornadoes sliced through Western and Central Massachusetts, officials in some communities recovering from the devastation are worried that countless downed trees and limbs could fuel a major fire.

“As far as our fire hazard is concerned, it will increase’’ as toppled trees and snapped limbs continue to lose moisture, said George Robichaud, fire chief in the hard-hit town of Monson. “The potential for them to burn hotter and quicker increases every day.’’

And that disturbing prospect, Robichaud said Friday, has robbed him of sleep. “We’re just crossing our fingers that nothing happens,’’ the chief said.

The storm cut a path 6 miles long and a quarter-mile wide through Monson, Robichaud said. In its aftermath, debris removal and cleanup continue every day.

One concern lies in nearby Brimfield State Forest, which has been closed because of tornado damage. The amount of drying timber and vegetation on the ground there rose exponentially after “the entire canopy of the forest was, in effect, knocked down,’’ said Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The amount of downed “fuels’’ in heavily wooded sections of the 40-mile-long swath of the tornadoes, Celino said, has risen to 30 tons per acre, from an average of 2 to 6 tons.

“Our big concern is if we get a prolonged period of drought like we did a year ago,’’ Celino said. With the canopy gone in large parts of Brimfield State Forest, he said, that area is “totally unshad ed, which means the forest floor and all those fuels on the ground are getting direct sunlight.’’

Celino said he does not believe a major fire is imminent, but that a prolonged combination of warm weather and low humidity could pose problems.

“We had a fairly wet spring, and we’ve had sufficient rainfall [so] that our drought index is very low right now,’’ Celino said. “But [last] week - a transition into a pattern that gives us very dry air masses with three or four or five days without precipitation - as fire managers, that’s a heads-up for us.’’

A fire environment can form fairly quickly in New England, particularly among fallen leaves, Celino said. “If we get two weeks with warm temperatures and lack of rainfall, we start to find ourselves in a fire season,’’ he said.

If a major fire began in Brimfield State Forest, firefighters trying to reach the blaze would face daunting obstacles, partly because downed timber would hinder access, Robichaud said. Helicopters, which are costly and take precious time to organize, might be the most effective way to fight such a fire, he said.

“You have a quarter of a mile path of trees that are just laying over,’’ the chief said. Because of those obstacles, said Fred Piechota, acting fire chief in Brimfield, “the forest in many, many places is inaccessible.’’

Local officials recognize the potential danger and have reached out to neighboring communities to prepare, Robichaud said. “We still haven’t really come up with a definitive plan,’’ the chief said. “We have some thought processes and are working collectively with other towns.’’

In nearby Wilbraham, Fire Captain Peter Nothe said he does not believe the town faces a highly elevated fire threat. However, he added, months of dry weather could mean increased danger next spring.

“I can probably see something happening if we have a dry winter, just with all the extra brush from the fallen trees, the damage to the trees that has been done. It’ll all pile up,’’ Nothe said. “If we don’t get any snow over the winter and there’s an exceptionally dry spring, something’s bound to happen.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at