By Chris Rowley
have been a lot more than twenty people gathered at the Kerhonkson Fire
Department on the evening of Thursday, June 5, but in the aftermath of the
fire that burned 2700 acres of the Shawangunk Ridge in April, it seems that
our region has gone back to sleep when it comes to confronting the difficult
and expensive issues of fire safety.
The meeting was
called to discuss late-April's fire at Minnewaska Park, which included a
detailed report from NY State Forest Ranger Robert Mecus on the lessons
learned from the fire and the effort of combating it. Heidi Wagner, the
Preserve Manager at Sam's Point, also gave a presentation about the Firewise
Initiative. A key point that Ranger Mecus emphasized throughout his
presentation was that "twenty homes in the town of Wawarsing needed to be
physically protected." And that the skill set required for fighting a
forest fire was very different from that employed in fighting a structural
fire. Mecus noted, with some pride, that the only structure lost to the
Minnewaska fire was a "yurt," or a Park Service shed. That drew
appreciative chuckles from the audience of fire fighters and state troopers,
most of whom had firsthand experience of the fire in April.
noted that the effort to protect 20 homes at the same time required a lot of
resources, and that it stretched the ability of the local fire fighting
brigades to the limit.
into a lot of problems, like steep driveways that are very difficult to back a
firetruck onto. There are more and more homes being built in areas close to
the park, on the ridge, and not enough consideration is being given to fire
protection when these homes are built."
Mecus went on
to describe in some detail how the effort to fight the fire was organized.
a bunch of guys running around in the woods. It required a large incident
management team and a huge amount of resources. By the Sunday, April 20, there
were 420 people working on the Minnewaska fire."
described the so-far unique characteristics of the fire. "Because it had
been so long since a fire had burned up there, there was a considerable amount
of dried out fuel, underbrush, branches, leaves, waiting to burn. And with the
conditions as they were, and remember we had very low humidity levels, even
early in the morning, which is unheard of for New York, the fire was able to
grow very quickly and to burn out of control. There were times when we had
flames sixty and seventy feet high coming off the fire front. As far as I
know, this has never been encountered before in New York."
At this point,
Heidi Wagner gave a presentation of the Firewise Program. This program
originated in the western states which have been battling wildfires for quite
some time. The essential problem is that people have
been moving out of towns and suburbs into forest and wildlands. This creates
the "wildland/urban interface," which can provide conditions ideal
for spreading wildfires, destroying homes, and threatening lives. Firewise is
designed to awaken people to what they can do to protect their homes and their
families from dangerous wildfires.
Wagner explained that, as Cragsmoor is the only community
actually on the Shawangunk Ridge, "we saw the possibility of fire
reaching our doorsteps, and so Cragsmoor took a serious look at the problem
and what could be done, and that lead to Cragsmoor becoming the first Firewise
Community in New York."
Wagner went on to explain that they were faced with the problem
of having a lot of houses, a lot of roads and driveways and only a limited
amount of firefighting resources, such as trucks.
"So the solution was to take pro-active steps, to make our
community safer from wildfires," said Wagner.
The Firewise program for protecting a house includes creating
several zones of protection. Zone 1 is a well-irrigated area cleared of
flammable material that encircles the structure for at least 30 feet on all
Beyond that lies Zone 2, which is an area where low-flammability
plant materials should be used.
Zone 3 is where you should place low-growing plants and
well-spaced trees, remembering to keep the volume of vegetation — which fuels fires — low.
In Zone 4, you selectively thin and prune all plants, and remove
highly flammable vegetation.
It was evident that the program's language comes from Arizona,
California, or even Colorado or western Oregon. In New York, our climate is
usually more that of a temperate rain forest and plant materials grow in such
abundance given any access to sunlight that clearance — cutting, bushwhacking,
mowing, and chain-sawing — is much more necessary than irrigation or planting.
However, as Wagner and Mecus both observed, what was normal for
New York is not necessarily what will be normal. This April, dry and with
abundant sunshine, was more like Arizona-weather than what we're used to. With
global climate change, this may become something we'll see more frequently.
And if we do, then having a lot of vegetation close around a house on the
edges of the forest may be asking for trouble. Mecus illustrated this point
with photographs taken of houses on various parts of the ridge that were
either hidden in foliage or had woodpiles placed conveniently close to the
"Having a nice pile of seasoned, dry wood beside your house
is a bad idea in a fire zone," said Mecus. "It may be more
convenient in winter, but it provides a fire with all it needs to spread into
Wagner pointed out that "We haven't had a fire here in fifty
years, so there's lots of fuel just waiting to burn in the right conditions.
Out west, where they've been fighting these sorts of fires for a long time,
this has forced changes in codes. In Oregon, we learned you can't even buy a
house unless it meets Firewise standards." "What you have to
do," said Wagner, "is think like a burning ember. Once you start to
see it from an ember's point of view, you can see the things you need to do to
keep your home safe. And, I've been told, embers can be carried aloft, up to
three miles in the right conditions."
Firewise also recommends sensible ideas like using fire-resistant
roofing materials, which means almost anything other than Cedar Shakes.
However, in New York, roofing is generally made with Class-A shingles or
turned metal, both of which have good resistance to flying embers (for more
Firewise info, check out www.firewise.org).
Another Firewise recommendation, this time for construction, is
of particular concern where the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskills are
concerned. Since fire moves rapidly up a slope, it is best not to build in
places with wonderful views out over the valleys below. However, since that
goes against human nature, people with homes perched above slopes should take
Firewise precautions and remove any flammable materials below the house that
could conduct the fire towards the house.
And, Ranger Mecus would add, it's also vital to think about
helping the firefighters. One good example is making sure that your driveway
doesn't have too steep a grade. "If a fire truck cannot be backed up your
driveway, then in an emergency the firefighters are going to be seriously
hampered when trying to save your home." Mecus illustrated this by
showing a photograph of one driveway that proved considerably difficult in
fire prevention efforts in April. It was designed, perhaps, to allow access to
the house for the owner's SUV, but not for fire and rescue vehicles. This is
one of those details that Mecus feels should be taken into account in county
and locality building codes.
"Going beyond Firewise, all our communities should be
looking at their building codes and thinking about the risks of wildfires and
how structures can be protected in the event of a fire."
After Mecus and Wagner's presentations, questions were taken by
Eric Humphrey, Park Manager, and Gabriel Chapin, an ecologist at the Nature
Conservancy. Humphrey said that the burned area would be off-limits to hikers
for as much as a year. Chapin noted that this was necessary to keep invasive
species out of the burned zone. Chapin and Humphrey also remarked that fresh
growth was already underway and that the shrub cover, such as blueberry and
mountain laurel, would grow back very quickly, regenerating from seeds buried
in the soil.
The question remains as to whether the human inhabitants of the
ridge and its environs will have woken up to the warning provided by this
massive blaze and take the necessary steps to safeguard our communities before
it happens again. One thing of which Ranger Mecus and everyone else was
convinced was that it would happen again — perhaps not in April, perhaps not right beside 44-55, and that
depending on the conditions, it could destroy homes, threaten lives and wreak
far more havoc than the Minnewaska Fire of 2008.
Thursday April 17
Fire started around noon, probably from a cigarette dropped in
the woods close to the Overlooks on Route 44-55, above Kerhonkson.
First to respond were park rangers and local volunteer
(NOTE: It was later determined by the Fire Investigation Team
that the cause of the fire was NOT arson.)
It was realised after a few hours that the fire was too big and
the conditions were creating problems and the tactics that were being used
were not the correct ones. So the decision was made to pull back,
reorganize and come up with a better plan for dealing with it.
The Rangers and Firefighters came back in and resumed the effort
to contain the fire up until Midnight.
At this stage the fire was covering an area south of 44-55 about
75 acres in extent.
It had almost been pinched in half by two crews working on
either side of it. There were crews cutting fireline by hand and we also
had a bulldozer making wider firelines on flatter ground.
The big problem at this stage was a shelf of rock that projected
above the fire on the south eastern side.
The crew cutting the handline were working in very difficult
terrain, in dense vegetation and by the time they reached this rock, the fire
had crept to the top of the shelf and was spreading past it. Ranger
Mecus determined that the conditions were too dangerous for the crews working
in there and they were pulled back. The fire then spread south and east, and
then south moving uphill.
Friday Morning 7am
The fire had gone over the rock shelf and was burning towards the
Sanderskill. It had doubled in size from Thursday night. Ranger Mecus observed
that the conditions were very unusual. The fire was already very hot, there
were already flames six or seven feet high and the humidity was very low for
that time of day. The fire was already up and moving.
It was decided that a lot more firefighting resources were
required. The fire was spotting over the Sanderskill, that is it was sending
embers out in front and starting up small fires ahead of the fire front.
By this point the fire required a Type 2 Management Team, and the call had
gone out for statewide help.
Friday 12 Noon
The fire was now overwhelming hand cut firelines and firefighters
were pulled back across the Peterskill. A decision was made to used
established firebreaks such as carriage trails and the throughcuts below Power
Lines as the primary firebreaks since the fire was no throwing up 60 and
70 foot long flames and was moving rapidly south and southwest. Some
powerlines, that run 90 feet above the ground, were singed.
Firefighting equipment and firefighters had arrived to boost the
effort to contain the fire. Several bulldozers were deployed to widen
and clear firebreaks.
At this point the fire behaviour was extraordinary for New
York. The relative humidity was down in the teens and winds were raising 60
foot flame lengths. The fire was still moving uphill which made it very hard
At one point men in a bulldozer were forced to run for their
lives as the fire broke towards them.
The fire was throwing up a lot of embers and spotting small fires
ahead of the main fire front.
By this point a Wildland-Urban Interface Assessment Team had been
formed and was busy assessing the home nearest the fire to see how they
might be protected. These homes were on Park Lane, Rockhaven Road and Decker
Friday 9 pm Nightfall on Friday brought more helpful conditions.
Humidity rose and winds died down. The fire was still active, but it was no
longer spreading as fast as it had in the daytime. Over Friday night into
Saturday morning the fire calmed down considerably.
Saturday Morning 8am
By this time about 2,000 acres or so had burned or were on fire.
During Saturday Morning lots of help and equipment arrived. The
Type 2 Management Team were not there yet, so the fire was still being managed
by the local team.
With the increase in resources came the ability to improve
firelines ahead of the fire and now these firelines began to hold.
Bulldozers were at work improving and widening firelines.
Firefighters were pulled back to safety zones, a procedure that
is done to ensure that everyone knows where to go to find safety in the
confusing and dangerous condiitions of a major fire like this one. However,
during this period, which lasted for an hour or so, the fire did not cross the
new, improved firelines.
The Type 2 Management Team arrived and took over management of
the firefighting response to the fire.
Humidity levels were at 30% and the fire was close to being
contained, not completely but mostly.
Throughout Saturday Night into Sunday Morning crews worked to
improve firelines and create burnouts. These are small fires set between
containment lines, to remove all fuel for the main fire and provide wide
firebreaks ahead of the main fire.
Sunday Morning 8 am
The weather had changed, there was much higher humidity and
temperatures had dropped considerably. The fire behaviour was now much
By late morning, Sunday, the fire was essentially contained. The
fire was still burning, still dangerous, but it was no longer spreading and
the fire defenses were holding it.
The mopping up operations had begun. Fire crews were moving
inside the perimeter of the fire, extinguishing hot spots. This work continued
for the rest of the week.
Tuesday, April 29
A week later, the Type 2 Team handed over management to
Minnewaska Park. The fire was officially contained, and over.
Interagency After Action Review. This meeting will take note of
what occurred in April and analyze the decisions made at the time and make
recommendations for the next time.
Because there will be a next time. As Ranger Mecus points out,
"We have these kind of conditions quite often in April and that is when
we tend to have these fires."
In the town of Wawarsing, there is a total ban on burning between
April 15 and May 15 every year, regardless of the weather conditions.