DEM Plans More Controlled Burns on State Land in 2023
February 6, 2023
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has announced it will ramp up its use of prescribed burns on state-owned lands during the coming year.
Environmental officials identified four areas — all under DEM management — that could start to see burns as soon as this spring: Dutch Island in Jamestown; the Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry; Pratt Farm, part of the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter; and Prudence Island in Portsmouth. The agency’s forest fire program will lead the burns.
“These four areas were specifically chosen because these are areas that have a history of fire in the landscape,” DEM forest fire program manager Pat MacMeekin said. “Those forest habitats we’re targeting, like pitch pine scrub oak forest lands, are areas that really call for it, that would specifically benefit from prescribed fire.”
Prescribed burns are strictly controlled, deliberately ignited fires meant to keep forest ecosystems healthy by slowing the spread of pests and diseases, promoting pollinator habitats and reducing the amount of available dried material that fuels wildfires.
Forest fire program officials performed a similar, one-day planned fire last March on Dutch Island, aimed at regenerating and restoring the maritime grasslands on the island and killing off invasive species such as autumn olive, honeysuckle, European larch, and white poplar. The fire consumed about 40 acres of forest on the island.
“The difference between when we started [the Dutch Island burn] and what it looks like now is pretty drastic,” DEM wildlife biologist John Veale said. “Previously, the bittersweet and honeysuckle were about the thickness of your arm, and it was just this tangled mass that was 20 feet high. Now, there’s a lot of warm seasonal grasses that are coming in.”
Those grasses on the island and elsewhere, such as milkweed that DEM reports growing, are good for pollinators.
DEM expects this year’s prescribed fires to burn between 100 and 150 acres of state-managed forest, with two or three fire events planned this spring. Funding for the program is partially derived from the $3 million forest and habitat restoration allocation from the Green Bond approved by voters in the last election.
Last year Rhode Island saw more than 80 wildfires throughout the state, according to DEM, as the state experienced one of its driest summers in almost a decade. Drought-like conditions for much of the summer, and a number of campfires, helped ignite a busy summer for the department’s forest fire program.
The busy fire season for Rhode Island is typically the two-month period between mid-March and mid-May, as winter snow melts and reveals debris on the ground before trees grow their spring leaves. The lack of shade allows that debris to dry out in the early spring sun, creating perfect conditions for ignition.
As leaves grow in and the humidity rises, summer rains moisten the ground and decrease the probability of fires. But last year even after the leaves grew in, much of the surface material remained dry.
DEM banned outdoor fires at all state parks, campgrounds, and management areas for two weeks last August because of continuing drought conditions.
MacMeekin said DEM has been quietly working over the past several years to expand the fire program, and is ready to begin more dedicated burns. Part of it is aligning land management practices with neighboring states. Massachusetts has performed 223 prescribed fires since 2018, totaling 7,148 acres. Connecticut had 18 prescribed fires totaling 300 acres in the same time period.
Rhode Island, meanwhile, has only conducted three burns since 2018, totaling around 78 acres.
DEM will start notifying abutting landowners and municipalities starting a month ahead of any planned burns. Forest fire program officials will set a window to perform the burns, as the events are heavily dependent on wind direction and other weather conditions to ensure the fire does not spread uncontrollably.
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