Editorial: Controlled burns a vital tool to prevent more wildfires

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO  |  Volunteer firemen fighting the wildfires in Manorville last year.
PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Volunteer firemen fighting the wildfires in Manorville last year.

April showers bring May flowers, the saying goes.

But not last year. April 2012 brought raging wildfires to the region, including a blaze that blackened over 1,100 acres from eastern Brookhaven into Riverhead Town, destroying homes and property and injuring volunteer firefighters along the way.

Already this year, on Wednesday, the National Weather Service warned of an enhanced threat of wildfires due to dry air and wind.

Related: Pine Barrens, fire victims see life returning to normal

Although local fire departments have taken the necessary steps to improve what was already a lauded response to the Wildfire of 2012, state officials in Albany should step up their response and get serious about preventing such disasters from ever happening.

Controlled burns, also known as hazard reduction burning, in forested areas are still rarely used in Suffolk County as a way to prevent these windswept and uncontrolled fires from sparking in the first place. Although last year’s wildfire was deemed intentionally set, such fires are natural occurrences and necessary for regeneration within the Pine Barrens. Controlled burns, performed in small areas when conditions are right, should be undertaken regularly as they are in other states with more wildfire experience.

Government officials and residents in the Midwest know from experience that if they don’t act first, Mother Nature will find a way to take care of her forests. And she doesn’t take lives or property into account. Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who favors controlled burns, reports this week that state and local officials are looking into conducting more controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires.

But why is everyone still looking, when so many months have already passed?

Since last year, local firefighters have been taking important steps toward better equipping themselves for forest fires and more training. But controlled burns are a much less expensive way to ensure public safety — and it’s good for the environment. Though somewhat unfamiliar here, residents who live near forested areas must understand and refrain from issuing complaints with the government during such burns, something that has led to the cessation of burn programs in other states, ultimately resulting in disastrous results.

New York State Central Pine Barrens Commission executive director John Pavacic said that, while the commission has acted in trying to educate the public and fire departments on how to prevent and tackle accidental fires, it’s also “taking a fresh look” at updating its fire management plan. But it’s a year later and time is of the essence.

A plan that includes a sophisticated controlled burn program should be presented to the public sooner rather than later.