Frequently Asked Questions
Regarding Wildfire and the Central Pine Barrens Wildfire Task Force

Prepared by the Central Pine Barrens Public Education Committee



1. What is a wildfire ?


Photo:  A wall of flames 
confronts firefighters during
the 1995 Sunrise Wildfire.
Photo courtesy of
Chief Dean Culver,
Westhampton Beach
Fire Department

 


Any fire occurring on forested lands with the potential to threaten life and property is termed a wildfire.  It is also described as a "forest fire" or, on Long Island, as a "brush fire"

2. What is the Central Pine Barrens 
Wildfire Task Force ?


Photo:  Member organizations
of the Wildfire Task Force
sponsor both Spring and Fall
training sessions.  These include
both classroom and field instruction.

 


The Wildfire Task Force is a diverse group of organizations created through a resolution passed by the Central Pine Barrens Commission following the 1995 wildfires on November 8, 1995 (and subsequently modified several times through December 2000).

The Wildfire Task Force consists of 41 agencies representing Federal, State, County, local agencies, private organizations and the volunteer fire service with property ownership or other vested interest in fire protection within the Central Pine Barrens.  You can see the complete current roster here.

The Task Force was charged with the responsibility of pre-fire planning for wildfire suppression as called for in the 1995 Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan. The Central Pine Barrens Fire Management Plan took three years to complete and was finalized in 1999.
 


3. What is the Pine Barrens ?


Photo:  An aerial view of
the Central Pine Barrens.

 


The Central Pine Barrens is an approximately 102,500 acre area within the central and eastern portions of New York's Suffolk County that includes parts of the Towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.  The Pine Barrens is legally broken up into a 55,000 acre Core Preservation Area and a 47,500 acre Compatible Growth Area.  (You can see an overview map here.)

The center of this area is a mosaic of pitch pine and pine-oak forests, coastal plain ponds, marshes, and streams.  This region contains one of the greatest concentrations of endangered, threatened and special concern plant and animals species in New York and provides deep flow recharge to the aquifer from which Long Island draws significant portions of its drinking water.  (You can view a fact sheet with more detail here.)
 


4. What is the Fire Management Plan, and how is it being put into action ?


Photo:  Members of the Task Force,
including Long Island's Air and Army
National Guard units,
conduct regular "Air Ground
Firefighting Coordination"
exercises for battling wildfires.
In addition, the Task Force sponsors
the annual NY Wildfire and
Incident Management Academy.

 


The Central Pine Barrens Fire Management Plan provides a comprehensive evaluation of the issues associated with wildfires in the Central Pine Barrens.

Each chapter details the various components associated with the overall successful management of fire in the Central Pine Barrens from prevention, suppression, and ecological standpoints.  The Plan includes specific recommendations for each topic.

These recommendations form the basis for creation of subcommittees that work to implement the Plan.  The current subcommittees of the Wildfire Task Force are:

  • Fire Weather
  • Prescribed Fire
  • Public Education
  • Fire Protection Assessment
  • Equipment Research & Training
  • Fire Investigation & Documentation
  • Air-Ground Firefighting Coordination
  • Reimbursement of Operating Expenses
  • Wildfire & Incident Management Academy
 

5. Where can I get a copy 
of the Fire Management Plan ?


Photo:  The Fire Management
Plan recommends training in several
disciplines.  Here, students from
around the country learn the
basics of power saw use
in wildfire response at the
2000 NY Wildfire and 
Incident Management Academy.
 


The Plan is available online at the Central Pine Barrens Commission web page at:

http:// pb.state.ny.us/fire_plan/final_plan_toc.htm

A printed copy can be requested from the Commission office at 631-224-2604.
 


6. What are the causes of wildfires ?


Photo:  Prescribed burns
such as this are examples
of lawfully set fires.

 


There are approximately one thousand wildfires in the Central Pine Barrens each year.  It is estimated that over 95% of these fires in the Central Pine Barrens are started by human hand.  Accidental fires are the result of carelessness with campfires, smoking materials, illegal fireworks and illegal ATVs.  Others are unlawfully set fires (i.e., those without a prescribed burn plan and legal purpose), started for a variety of motives.  Many are started by juvenile fire setters.

Lightning, while often a source for ignition of wildfires in many western states, is generally accompanied by rain on the east coast and, therefore, is not a common ignition source for wildfires in the eastern Pine Barrens.
 


7. What are the dangers of wildfires ?


Photo:  Firefighters head
into the 1995 wildfires.
Photo courtesy of
Capt. Robert Annitto,
Rocky Point
Fire Department.

 


Wildfires damage hundreds, sometimes thousands, of acres in the Pine Barrens each year.  These fires jeopardize homes and businesses in the wildland-urban interface.  These fires cost thousands of taxpayer dollars to suppress and control and involve hundreds of operating hours on fire apparatus and thousands of volunteer man hours from the volunteer firefighters.

There are also many direct and indirect costs to local businesses that excuse volunteers from work to fight these fires.  These fires often cause injury to both civilians and firefighters and many cause damage to structures as well.
 


8. What is a wildland-urban interface ?


Photo:  A portion of the 
interface area burns during
the 1995 Sunrise Wildfire.
Photo courtesy of
Chief Dean Culver,
Westhampton Beach
Fire Department.

 


The line, area, or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels is called the wildland-urban interface.  It is in these "interface zones" that people and structures are most at risk from wildfire.

The International Code Council offers suggestions for protecting your home and community from wildfire at their Wildfire Safety: Protect Your Home and Community web page.


9. What is a "prescribed fire" or 
a "controlled burn" ?


Photo:  Start of prescribed burn
at Rocky Point.
Note firebreak and test
burn area in foreground.

 


A prescribed fire is a controlled application of fire to wildlands in either their natural or modified state, and under specified environmental conditions, which allow the fire to be confined to a predetermined area, and produce the fire behavior and fire characteristics necessary to reduce the risk of wildfire in the future.

These fires are done only under very specific "prescriptions," which include written plans that defines the time frames, weather, fire protection, smoke management, number of personnel required and other safety issues under which prescribed fires can be safety conducted.  Further, the personnel conducting these prescribed fires undergo extensive training and field experience, and all burns are conducted under permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC).
 


10. Why is it necessary to have prescribed burns ?


Photo:  Forest floor in same
area immediately following burn.
Note the clearance of
"fuel" from the ground.

 


Strategically placed prescribed fires can reduce the threat of uncontrollable wildfires, and can increase firefighter safety when a wildfire does cross the "previously burned" area.  When a wildfire burns in a recently burned area,
  • the rate of spread is slower,
  • the fire intensity is lessened,
  • access through the vegetation is easier, and
  • there is a greater degree of overall safety for the firefighter.


This is because the volume of dead needles, leaves and branches is reduced when an area is regularly burned.  This process is called fuel load reduction.

There may also be ecological benefits to prescribed fire.  It is commonly believed that the Central Pine Barrens is a mosaic of fire maintained natural communities, and supports many species, including scrub oak, that could be favored by periodic fire.  Wildlife that feed on resprouting vegetation following a fire, and that prefer open sunny habitat, profit from fires as well.  With effective planning, a prescribed fire management program can benefit the Central Pine Barrens fire suppression program as well as meet ecological goals.
 


11. What is fire weather monitoring ?


Photos:  Representatives
to the Wildfire
Task Force
setting up
the Pine Barrens
fire weather
station in
May of 1999.

 


Wildfire behavior is greatly influenced by local weather conditions. "Fire weather" conditions include:
  • relative humidity, which affects moisture content of  the air and fuels;
  • wind, which affects the direction and speed of fire spread; and
  • air temperature, which affects the ambient temperature of the fire fuels.
Fire conditions worsen as temperature increases and relative humidity decreases.  Wind speeds in excess of 10 mph also begin to increase fire intensity, the rate of fire spread and the growth of a fire through adverse fire behavior, such as crowning (tree top fire) and spotting (fire starting ahead of main fire).  Fires become most difficult to control when relative humidity falls below 30 percent.  These severe conditions were present during the 1995 wildfires in Rocky Point and Westhampton.

An excellent introduction to the science of fire weather is available at the following web sites:

 

12. How is fire weather monitoring applied to our own Suffolk County, Long Island region ?


Photo above:  The first of several
Smokey the Bear
Daily Fire Danger signs
planned for the Central
Pine Barrens.
This one is at
the entrance to Southaven
County Park in Shirley.
Photo below:  Typical warning
sign during time of
high fire danger.

 


Data on fire weather is an important tool for both the prevention and suppression tactics for wildfires.  This data is available to the local fire departments through Suffolk County Fire Rescue’s Communication Center.  A qualitative daily fire weather danger rating for Suffolk County is currently calculated by an interagency committee, based upon two fire weather stations, one operated by the US FWS at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge and one operated by the Central Pine Barrens Commission in Eastport.

The daily Suffolk County fire weather rating will be one of four values:

  • "Low", color coded as Green,
  • "Moderate", color coded as Blue,
  • "High", color coded as Yellow, or
  • "Extreme", color coded as Red.
The daily fire danger rating indicates how fire will behave in the pine barrens areas; it does not predict the possibility of fire occurring there.  Ignition of wildfires are almost always by careless or intentional actions of children or adults (see Question 5:  "What are the causes of wildfires?").

This fire weather index is currently utilized to notify the public when fire danger  reaches levels that require special caution in the outdoors.  This data is also used  by the Federal, State and County Parks officials in coordination with local officials when making decisions about restricting or prohibiting use of fire and other activities at parks and other public lands in the interest of public safety.

Fire suppression crews utilize fire weather data and fire weather forecasts to anticipate fire behavior and determine the type and amount of fire suppression forces that will be needed to achieve control of a wildfire.  Since deployment of  large fire suppression forces and special equipment, such as helicopters for water drops, requires additional time and money, fire weather data is helpful in quickly accessing resource needs.

You may view the current year's - and recent past years' - daily fire danger ratings for the Central Pine Barrens at this link.
 


13. What can I do to protect my home if I am in the wildland-urban interface ?


Photo top:  Portion of Central
Pine Barrens interface area.

Bottom:  Road edges are
also part of the wildland
urban interface.

 

  • When replacing your roof, choose a Class A (or fire resistant) product.  Your roof is the most vulnerable part of your house in a wildfire because of its large size and its susceptibility to flying embers.
  • Dead pine needles and leaves are fuel!  Keep them off your roof, out of your gutters and away from your home.
  • Mow grasses and other low vegetation regularly, and keep them well watered.
  • Firewood should be stored at least 50 feet away from your house, especially during fire season and times of high fire danger.
  • Make your street number clearly visible from the road.
  • If you live on a "flag lot", be sure your driveway provides adequate accessibility for emergency vehicles. Contact your local Fire Marshal for specific requirements.
  • In existing cleared areas, plant only low growing, green, fire resistive vegetation.
  • Enclose the underside of balconies and above ground decks with fire resistive or noncombustible materials.
  • Remove dead branches overhanging your roof and all branches within ten feet of chimneys
  • Cover chimneys serving fireplaces or wood stoves with noncombustible screening with a mesh size no greater than ¼ inch
  • Remove vines from the walls or roof.
  • The International Code Council also offers wildfire protection suggestions at their Wildfire Safety: Protect Your Home and Community web page.