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New England News

Active Berkshire Wildland Fire Is Largest In Massachusetts In 12 Years

A helicopter carries a container of water out of a lake
Josh Landes
/
WAMC

Massachusetts officials say an ongoing wildland fire in Northern Berkshire County is the state’s largest in over a decade.

The East Mountain Fire began as a brushfire in Williamstown on Friday, and has spread thanks to wind events over into the Clarksburg State Forest. More than 120 firefighters from 19 surrounding towns and state units are attempting to contain it. Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini spoke Monday afternoon.

“I can report at this point we've burned about 800 acres and we are 60% contained at this time," he said. "No structures are threatened by the fire. One firefighter was taken to the hospital over the weekend. He's in good condition and remains hospitalized this time. Today the Mass National Guards and the Massachusetts State Police were conducting, are conducting air operations including water drops to help contain a fire.”

The Appalachian Trail has been impacted by the fire, and hikers have been warned to steer clear of the area.

“The fire is going to continue to burn for several days as the firefighters work to contain the dry leaf litter such as surface fuel combined with low humidity steep terrain that resulted in a large fire growth over the last two days," said Pedercini. "The public can expect to see smoke even after it's 100% contained.”

“We've had just about 590 wildland fires across the state of Massachusetts so far this year. And this is the largest fire that we've had. It's the largest fire that we've had probably in the last 12 years," said Dave Celino, the chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. “However, in our fire history for the state, it's not uncommon. It wasn't long ago, a couple of generations ago, that we would, it was common for us to see, you know, 500, 1,000 or even 2,000 acre fires somewhere in the state.”

Due to challenging terrain, containment efforts have stopped at nightfall to protect firefighters.

“It's rugged, steep terrain with ledges, and you have burning snags, what we call dead trees are called snags, and they create a real super hazard to firefighters on wildland fires, and in the nighttime just raises that complexity and that risk level,” the chief fire warden explained.

Celino said that the East Mountain Fire is now burning into the footprint of a 300-acre fire in the area that occurred in 2015.

“The fire burns upslope," he said. "Fire loves to burn upslope until it runs into moisture. And what we're seeing here is, we're still seeing moisture under the leaf litter. And in that fire, it did the same thing and burned to the top of the slope where it ran into moisture and actually burned itself out. What we've seen on the East Mountain Fire the last few days, and the reason that it's grown so large, is because the fire is backing down slow. And that tells us something. That tells us that's how dry the fuels are on that upper layer of the soil.”

A man in a polo and hat gestures to a map on the side of a fire truck while a man in a mask and jacket watches
Credit Josh Landes / WAMC
Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation explains the growth of the East Mountain Fire while North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard watches.

Using a map of the region, Celino described the growth of the fire.

“What it did is it went, influenced by the steep slope, it comes up to the Pine Cobble summit," he said. "And there was a little bit of wind with it, and we call that alignment, and it aligned perfectly with the steep slope and the winds that were pushing it, and the dry fuels, and it came up in over the ridge and cross the Appalachian Trail. And this was the first perimeter that we had on Saturday afternoon. And then from there it actually spread out. It's down into this bowl here and it made a little bit of a push north, but it's a lot wetter up in here in the soils, and so it's now backing down slope through this bowl. And it's down below the Appalachian Trail. It's all backing fire right now, and so it's a slow rate of spread. But if you think about it, there's over 3000 feet of perimeter that's active. So it doesn't take much, you know, for that length, even if it's slow spread, the acreage will add up.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

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