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House commission: DEM lacks resources to properly fight wildfires

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House commission: DEM lacks resources to properly fight wildfires

Mar 04, 2024 | 8:56 pm ET
By Christopher Shea
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House commission: DEM lacks resources to properly fight wildfires
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Fire damage at the Queen’s River Preserve in Exeter is shown in April 2023. (Courtesy Tim Mooney/Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island)

PROVIDENCE — The cause of two April 2023 fires that scorched hundreds of acres of forest in Exeter and West Greenwich may never be known, but officials say dry conditions and dense vegetation were the reasons the wildfires got as big as they did.

Now a House commission has some ideas about what to do to prevent future wildfires in Rhode Island like the one that burned 200 acres over one day in the Big River Management Area in West Greenwich and a second that burned 238 acres over two days in and around the Queen’s River Preserve in Exeter. A draft report released Monday called for more funding for forestry management, better collaboration between state officials and local fire chiefs, and training at the local level.

The commission’s draft report mistakenly notes that upward of 600 acres at the Queen’s River Preserve burned. It will be updated in the final report, said Rep. Meghan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat.

The 12-member commission was established last April by Cotter, who knows firsthand how devastating uncontrolled fires can be. In 2017, Cotter lost her home because of a fire caused by a lithium battery.

“And we lost everything,” she said in an interview Monday afternoon.

Two hundred firefighters from across the region and Rhode Island National Guard helicopters fought to extinguish the Exeter blaze. Aside from one hunting cabin that was destroyed, no injuries were reported and no homes were lost. But Cotter worries that unless the state takes action, a future wildfire could be devastating.

“We got lucky, really lucky,” Cotter said.

That’s why she sponsored the bill that led to the creation of the 12-member study commission last year to analyze the state’s response to the wildfires. Over the last six months, commissioners heard testimony from local fire chiefs, forestry experts, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). 

Commissioners met for the final time Monday afternoon, where seven of its members reviewed the draft report on their findings along with recommendations they would like to see the General Assembly adopt to mitigate future fires.

Absent from Monday’s meeting were commissioners Tee Jay Boudreau, William Fortune, Armand Niquette, Marc Pappas, Katie Sayles, and Catherine Sparks. Marc Tremblay, a Burrillville-based land management consultant, filled in for Fortune.

‘Tinderbox’

The Queen’s River Preserve has since recovered and is now reopened, said Commissioner John Torgan, the state director for The Nature Conservancy — which owns the 188-acre woodland preserve. The fire also impacted privately-owned land in Exeter.

State to begin reforestation efforts after Exeter brush fire

Although no official cause of the fire has yet been determined, officials found an abandoned and illegal campsite on the property. Torgan also noted the role of the weather. 

“This occurred after two record-warm days in the spring where there were no leaves on the trees,” Torgan said. “That left it a tinderbox.”

Invasive diseases and insects also likely contributed to excessive dead wood on the forest floor, according to the commission’s report.

“One of the benefits of an old forest like this is they need fire to regenerate and take out some of the invasive species,” Torgan said. 

House commission: DEM lacks resources to properly fight wildfires
Rep. Megan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat, looks through a draft of recommendations to prevent future forest fires in Rhode Island. The Special Legislative Commission to Evaluate and Provide Recommendations on Proper Forest Management for Fire Prevention reviewed the recommendations in a draft report during its final meeting on March 4, 2024. At right is House Minority Leader Mike Chippendale, a Foster Republican. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Not enough forest managers

One issue that complicated the emergency response to the fire, Cotter said, was a lack of resources for the DEM.

As of 2023, DEM had four rangers, three laborers, and six foresters to manage 40,000 acres of forest land. There were no equipment operators employed by the department, according to the commission’s draft report.

In 1990, DEM had 16 rangers, 18 laborers, and seven foresters, and two equipment operators. 

That means only 1% of Rhode Island forests are actively managed in a given year, the commisson’s report states.

To address this, Cotter filed legislation in January that would allocate 10 full-time positions within DEM’s forestry division. She is also calling on the state to add $16 million for land protection programs to the existing, $50 million “green economy” bond included in Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget.

Communication is key

But what really challenged the effort to stop theExeter blaze, commissioners agreed, was a breakdown in communication between local fire officials and alerting private landowners — including the Nature Conservancy.

“We didn’t have contacts for people,” said Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs President Scott Kettelle.

Commissioner Dick Went said Conservation Districts — statutory organizations that work alongside DEM to help landowners manage their agricultural and forest land — likely have the contact information needed by rural fire departments.

Went, a member of the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Districts, said the organizations often sign off and hold information on people who live in forested areas.

But that would require the districts to bolster its outreach effort.

“That also involves money,” Went said. “But it’s possible.”

Commissioners agreed that local fire chiefs must have a seat at the table as state and local officials review their fire protection plans. But Kettelle said there have been very few meetings. He told fellow commissioners that DEM has a Forest Fire Advisory Committee, but it has rarely met in recent years and only just reconvened last Wednesday.

“DEM steers the ship and if they’re not calling the meetings, then we’re not meeting,” Kettelle said.

“Although the Forest Fire Advisory Committee has been around since the 1990s or perhaps longer, it has been an informal group,” DEM spokesperson Mike Healey said in an emailed statement

“[It’s] more of a mechanism through which fire chiefs may converse with the DEM Forest Fire Program about shared priorities, usually once or twice a year,” he said.

The last time the group met before last week was October 2021. Healey said COVID and a change of leadership in the DEM Forest Fire Program “interrupted the typical meeting cadence.” 

“The last meeting was a chance to restart, begin drafting bylaws, and elect new leaders,” he said.

Commissioners suggest meeting with the state’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and their local EMAs for regular updates. They in turn could develop handouts and brochures to give to landowners.

“It’s symbolic of Rhode Island: Lead from a small place,” Torgan said.