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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Nature Doing Its Thing at Site of Exeter Brush Fire

Nature can heal, but slowly

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

A pink lady slipper grows in the preserve. (Tim Mooney/TNC)
A month after the worst brush fire in decades, forestland at the Queen’s River Preserve is already starting to recover.

Tim Mooney, communications and marketing manager for the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which owns the land, said he has visited the site of April’s fire a half-dozen times over the last month, and noticed plant life coming back almost right away.

“Grasses started popping up a week after the fire, coming up the ash line,” Mooney said. “On Friday — four weeks after the fire — pink lady’s slippers are up, blackberries are starting to re-sprout, ferns are coming back up. There’s already more green out there now than there was a month ago.”

The newly cleared areas of the preserve have shown to be beneficial for a different kind of wildlife, as well. The aftermath of the fire has given the forest a chance to reset, said Mooney, which has created a habitat for songbirds.

The preserve, which is typically open to the public year-round, was closed until the beginning of May to clean up fire containment efforts.

Last month’s brush fire burned 238 acres, 45 of which belonged to The Nature Conservancy as part of the Queen’s River Preserve. The rest were state-managed lands and private property. State investigators told WPRI last month they suspected an abandoned campsite on the preserve was the cause of the blaze.

The fire came within 100 feet of nearby residential homes, but there were no reported injuries or fatalities. Some residents were asked to briefly evacuate.

It was the worst brush fire in Rhode Island in more than eight decades. In May 1942, the state saw around 900 acres burned across four days in 15 separate wildfires thanks to low people power because of World War II, according to the New England Historical Society.

Mooney said The Nature Conservancy has not committed to any forest management plan in response to the fire on the preserve, preferring to wait and see what long-term impacts the blaze will have on plants and wildlife.

“Large-scale wildfires have not been part of the Rhode Island landscape in decades,” he said. “It’s not completely foreign, but we may allow the forest to recover on its own to adapt and change.”

The Nature Conservancy is documenting the extent of the brush fire via aerial photography, a project expected to be completed in the near future, but the known path of the fire shows several unconventional fire-prevention strategies.

“As you look at the path of the fire, it appears that young, green hayfields and a large swamp — on the preserve and off — provided natural defenses that kept the fire from spreading and shielded several homes and other buildings,” Mooney said.

Lawmakers are already responding to the fire, expressing concern over the state’s forest management practices. Last week, the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard a resolution (H6342) introduced by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, to create a study commission on wildfire prevention and forest management.

“Many of those acres were in my district, about three minutes from my home,” Cotter told the committee. “You could see it in our backyard.”

“Climate change and the dryness of the year make Rhode Island like a tinderbox,” Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, said during a hearing on the bill. “We don’t take care of the forest, we don’t take care of the undergrowth, we don’t even maintain our fire roads.”

Mooney and The Nature Conservancy dispute that forest management practices were the chief cause of the fire, instead pointing toward dry conditions in the forest.

“I don’t think we have the science to say that at this point,” he said. “We’re more focused on climate change playing out in real-time here.”

It’s not the first time state wildfires have raised the issue of climate change. ecoRI News reported in August that 2022 was one of the driest summers on record thanks to the weather swings from extreme rain events to extreme drought the state experienced last year.

The state Department of Environmental Management banned outdoor fires at its campgrounds in late August, citing the dangerous risk of wildfires that season. Rhode Island recorded more than 80 brush fires last year.

Traditionally, the “busy” season for wildfires in Rhode Island is March to May, when winter snow finally melts and reveals debris on the ground before trees grow their spring leaves. Early spring sun shines through the forest, drying out the surface layer of the forest, making it more flammable. The risk of fire decreases as the leaves grow in, the typical humidity of the New England summer rises, and rains moisten the ground.

But New England, unlike western states such as California, has not been traditionally seen as a hotbed of wildfire. DEM’s program is under-resourced and under-staffed. A Burrillville wildfire last year had to be spotted from a Massachusetts fire tower — the ones in Rhode Island are no longer staffed.

Cotter’s resolution was held for further study.