DEM Training Prepares Firefighters for Warming Future
June 8, 2023
CHEPACHET, R.I. — It’s an overcast Wednesday morning at the George Washington Management Area and there’s smoke in the air.
It’s coming from a fast-burning small fire, lit in a copse of trees just 1,000 feet away from Route 44, by a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management instructor. Gathered around him is a small handful of DEM employees and municipal firefighters dressed in bright neon yellow bunker gear, who watch the instructor closely as he scrapes the ground in front of the fire — which is mostly smoke and embers — with the back of a fire ax.
Despite appearances, the instructor isn’t just digging into the ground; he’s demonstrating “cold-trailing,” a practice used by wildland firefighters to ensure no heat remains in the ground from an extinguished wildfire that could start another one.
It’s the last thing wildland firefighters do after a fire, part of a large suite of firefighting operations called “mop up,” the hard physical labor that comes after a fire is contained to remove burning material, cool hot spots, and remove fallen trees to ensure that once the fire is out, it’s out.
There are four learning stations on the George Washington Management Area, each one teaching state employees and municipal firefighters the basics of combating wildfires. There are three outside stations, including “mop up,” and one inside station in a classroom where volunteers learn how to combat wildfires by the book and practice using firing devices to consume fuel between a control line and a wildfire.
Outside, at the other two stations, volunteers learn how to build a fire line — a break in the fuel material used to control the main body of the fire — by cutting, scraping or digging by hand, and how to source water from nearby ponds in rural areas, when hydrants and water mains are not easily available.
The June 7 training sessions were organized and supervised by Ben Arnold, a forest ranger and training officer for DEM, who is no stranger to wildfires.
“This is the first time the department has done this kind of training in about 30 years,” Arnold said. “It’s about building up the capacity of our fire program.”
The training will also help volunteers assist with the DEM’s prescribed burns program, where forest specialists deliberately ignite fires to keep the ecosystem healthy, deprive wildfires of fuel, and slow the spread of pests and diseases.
Earlier this year DEM announced it was stepping up its prescribed burns program on state-managed lands, on four different areas with a history of fire. In March of last year, the department burned 40 acres on Dutch Island as part of a prescribed burn.
Arnold couldn’t have picked a better backdrop for the training if he tried. On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, DEM issued an air quality alert stemming from the thick, noxious haze that blanketed New England, blown down from a series of intense wildfires in eastern Canada.
The haze, which all week has discolored the sun and given the Ocean State’s air a pernicious smell, is a public health disaster, especially harmful to people with heart and lung disease, people who are pregnant, the elderly, and young children.
It’s a grim and potent reminder of things to come; while Rhode Island is the Ocean State, there are more threats from climate change than just rising sea levels.
Last year the state saw more than 80 brush fires, a recent record high, with many of them ignited by negligent or illegal campfires in rural areas. State officials don’t usually sweat forest fires in the summer; the busy season for those fires is between March and May, when the spring thaw has set in but before many trees grow in their leaves.
During those three months, the sun can shine down onto the forest floor, drying that surface layer which becomes the perfect ignition for a forest fire.
In years of normal precipitation, tree leaves grow in, the humidity rises, and seasonal rains moisten the growth, evaporating the chances of a forest fire starting.
But climate change has brought a series of very dry summers to Rhode Island over the past few years, and that surface layer of the forest, consisting of roots, pine needles, leaf litter, and other organic material, has stayed dry throughout the summer.
While the state currently isn’t facing drought conditions, the danger has not gone away. This past April saw the worst brushfire in 80 years, with 238 acres of forest in Exeter going up in flames across a combination of state-managed lands, the Queen’s River Preserve, and private property.
The fire came within 100 feet of homes, and some residents were temporarily evacuated until firefighters got the blaze under control. Luckily, there were no reported injuries or fatalities associated with the fire.
State officials said they suspect the cause of the fire was an abandoned campsite, but the investigation is still ongoing, and no official determination has been made.
In the meantime, the forest has already started to heal. The Nature Conservancy, the environmental nonprofit owner and manager of the Queen’s River Preserve, on which 45 acres burned in April’s fire, told ecoRI News last month they were already starting to see signs of life returning to the impacted areas of the forest.
The nonprofit was noncommittal on any future plans for the preserve, but indicated for the moment they were going to wait and see what happened as nature does its thing.
“It’s those red-hot days,” said Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer at DEM, explaining the signs and conditions the department looks out for when it comes to fires. “Sunny days with high temperatures and gusty winds, that’s when we get concerned and that’s when it happens.”
Historically, the state’s capacity for combating wildfires and performing prescribed burns has been limited. DEM’s fire program has only four full-time employees, and Arnold told ecoRI News last year the department no longer had the personnel to staff state fire towers during periods of heightened fire risk.
That’s starting to change. DEM said this week it was investing more resources into its forest fires division and plans to use money from the forest and habitat restoration portions of the 2022 green bond funding to gird forestlands against future fires and improve state fire roads, which are in serious disrepair.
“It’s like what the skater, Wayne Gretzky, said,” Healey said. “We’re just trying to go where the puck is already going.”