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Mass. Fire Official Says Historic East Mountain Fire 95% Contained

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
Josh Landes
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.

The wildland fire that burned around a thousand acres of land in Northern Berkshire County last week is almost fully contained. The East Mountain Fire was the largest of its kind in Massachusetts in more than two decades. Scores of firefighters from around the region as well as state units battled the fire as it moved east from Williamstown to Clarksburg. Chief Forest Fire Warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Dave Celino says it hasn’t grown since last weekend. WAMC spoke with Celino about the historic nature of the East Mountain Fire, and what it says about the potential for future wildland fires in Berkshire County.

CELINO: In 1999, we had an 1,100 acre fire in the town of Russell up on the Tekoa Mountain ridge top. So this is the largest fire that we've had in those 20 years. However, you know, it's not uncommon in farther history in Massachusetts to get fires of 1,000, 5,000, even 10,000 acre fires going back to the early 1900s.

WAMC: This fire took place in the footprint of a previous fire a few years back. Can you tell me a little bit about that kind of relationship when you see this sort of pattern emerging in a place like Northern Berkshire County where one fire steps into the location of a previous fire?

Yeah, that really lends itself to the environmental influences that manipulate wildland fire, and that's topography, fuels and weather. And so, in that particular spot, Josh, you know, topography lends itself well to the spread of the fire to a larger size. Part of that is because of its remoteness. And so you know, part of it is the fact that it's inaccessible, difficult to get to in a timely fashion, compared to probably 90% of all the wildland fires that we have in Massachusetts where we can get resources on to that fire, probably within, you know, half an hour or so of the start. It's a little different up there. It's remote country, it's rugged terrain, the topography itself lends itself to fire spread in an uphill direction. And then when you add winds like we have last Friday night, which influenced the fire spreading, the winds, the low humidly, the fuel conditions and the topography all aligned together to allow that thing to spread to 220 acres in that first day.

Is there any way to project from the data collected from this fire about the potential for future wildland fires in Northern Berkshire County?

Yeah, I think that there's always that possibility. And what we're seeing here, Josh, is, you know, we're in our average springtime wildfire season in Massachusetts. We probably have a little more than average fires. We've accounted for 750 wildland fires so far statewide in 2021. And again, it's all about the fuel conditions and the weather. What we've seen this spring is repeatedly, almost on a weekly basis, two or three days of very low relative humidity air. So you get dry air masses, a little bit of wind and some wind events that go with it. And then you have folks recreating out, you know, in the outdoors, and that's your ignition source. Over 95% of our wildland fires are human caused. And so they come together to create that frequency. And absolutely, any of those sites up in that Northern Berkshire County area are susceptible, and they've all had some sort of fire influence in history on that landscape at some point.

Did climate change play a role in the size of the fire?

Well, I what I would say is, what we're seeing as a pattern across the state this year is we're seeing what we think are residual drought stress effects on the dead fuels that are lying on the forest floor. So what we're seeing is very early in this fire season, larger fuels like three to six inch dead logs that were super dried out by the by the 2020 drought conditions. And we're thinking that they never really quite recovered. There wasn't a lot of snowpack in different areas, and it takes a long time for those larger fuels to recover their fuel moistures. And we're seeing those fuels actively burn this year. And even down in the eastern part of the state we're seeing live shrub fuels start to be consumed, which is which is really early for us in our fire season. That's fairly common when you get into the summer months and July, especially July and August, when those fuels dry out because of the heat. But we're seeing that trend to be a little bit earlier this year.

Beyond its historic size, was there anything else unique about the East mountain fire?

I think that what's great for us is that it provides a lot of good lessons learned and reminders of our fire history in Massachusetts and how these fires burn. This fire actually threatened no values at risk. They could have probably doubled in size before it became a threat to any values at risk out there. The unique part about it is it burned up over the Pine Cobble, which is a pitch pine, chestnut oak ecosystem that actually is very fire dependent and hasn't seen fire come through that little forest type up there in a long time. So one unique part of the East Mountain Fire is probably a positive effect on that ecosystem up there on Pine Cobble.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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