Suffolk Closeup: Pine Barrens blaze

What the Long Island Pine Barrens desperately need is a management plan that allows for something called “prescribed burning.” Otherwise, huge blazes like the one last week that roared through 1,000 acres of Pine Barrens in Manorville and Ridge can be expected, along with damage to homes and businesses and firefighters risking their lives.

Under prescribed burning, patches of the Pine Barrens would be set on fire annually under highly controlled conditions. This notion was advanced in a plan from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 1995 but, unfortunately, it has not been implemented in any substantive way.

“Only an average of 70 acres a year of Long Island Pine Barrens have been subject to prescribed burning,” notes Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “What’s needed is prescribed burning of at least 1,000 acres annually.”

Why is prescribed burning needed? The Pine Barrens are what’s called a “fire-climax ecosystem” — they depend on fire to thrive. It takes the intense heat of a fire for the serrotenous cones of the pitch pine to open. Seeds then spread to a cleared forest floor, bathed in sunlight. This is the natural life cycle of the Pine Barrens.

The process has come to be understood only in recent decades. When I became a reporter on Long Island 50 years ago, the woods now called the Pine Barrens were called “scrubland” and seen as having little value. Farmland was, of course, prized as was waterfront property — but “scrubland” wasn’t even considered suited for development except, perhaps, for industry.

Then came Steve Englebright, a geologist at Stony Brook University. He took journalists (including me), public officials and others on one-on-one tours of the Pine Barrens, explaining that their porous, sandy soil covers the purest deposits of underground water on Long Island. They are the finest portions of the aquifer on which we depend for potable water. Safeguarding the water below the Pine Barrens was vital for Long Island, he emphasized. Moreover, the Pine Barrens provide for an extraordinary variety of plant and animal species.

Mr. Englebright decided to enter politics while curating an exhibit on Pine Barrens destruction at the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences at Stony Brook. He concluded that documenting the loss wasn’t enough: he had to do what he could to stop it. He became a Suffolk County legislator, and later a member of the State Assembly, where he remains.

The lessons he taught led to the preservation of tens of thousands of acres of Long Island Pine Barrens. But there is a problem: the Pine Barrens are fire-dependent. Prescribed burning is the answer. However, as the Department of Environmental Conservation said in its 1995 plan: “Prescribed burning is a relatively new and unfamiliar tool for land managers, decision-makers and the general public on Long Island.” For them, “fire suppression” in the Pine Barrens had long been policy.

Fire suppression — extinguishing the frequent Pine Barrens fires— allows a thick carpet of Pitch Pine needles, leaves and dead wood to collect on the forest floor. This tinderbox, when ignited, causes super-fires such as the Sunrise Fire of 1995 and last week’s blaze which, for me, driving just to the south on the Long Island Expressway, looked like the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.

The Pine Barrens of Manorville and Ridge that caught fire last week had not “burned in 60 years,” said Mr. Amper. There would be an expense for prescribed burning in the Pine Barrens — some $500,000 annually to do the job right, he said — but considering the many millions of dollars spent on fighting the Sunrise Fire and last week’s blaze, it would be money well spent. “We should be working with Mother Nature and not engaging in a war with her,” he said. “Prescribed burning mimics the natural fire-climax process.”

Government is deeply involved in managing the Pine Barrens but, without adequate prescribed burning, it “is simply not being a good steward. The price is conflagration,” said Mr. Amper. “Do we have to lose firefighters to say, ‘Let’s properly manage the Pine Barrens?’”

The firefighters who bravely fought last week’s blaze are to be honored in a special ceremony next month. Just as important: implementing a program of prescribed burning in the Pine Barrens as the best way to avoid such huge conflagrations.