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Brush fire blazes through Brimfield

More than 50 acres burn as wind fans flames

A shot of the brush fire as seen from Holland Road. For more photos, please visit twitter.com/SouthbridgeNews. Kevin Flanders. (click for larger version)
April 05, 2012
BRIMFIELD — Fire crews from at least 30 Massachusetts and Connecticut communities converged on Brimfield Wednesday, April 4, to battle a 50-acre forest fire the wind pushed through the downed trees and brush left from last year's tornado.

As night fell, the fire was only about 30 percent contained, and firefighters in the woods were being pulled out, leaving crews to control the edges of the blaze, Brimfield Fire Chief Fred Piechota said. That was in part because weather forecasts were calling for a storm front to roll through with minimal rain but high winds.

"We plan to stay all night" and go back into the woods in the morning, he said, noting the fire had a lot of fuel because of numerous "small twigs, large trees and everything in between."

Sources on the scene said the blaze apparently started around 12 p.m. in the area of 27 Paige Hill Road, although a cause is not yet known.

Police Chief Charles Kuss said the call came in as "a brush fire out of control. Brimfield Fire knocked it down, but it popped up again behind them."

There were about seven homes on either side of the fire, but none of them were threatened significantly. There was no need to order evacuation, although residents generally "self-evacuated," Piechota said.

"This is the deadly stuff like this," said one of the Brimfield Emergency Management volunteers present who declined to give his name. "The fire's to the point, with this wind, they're afraid to engage firefighters in the woods, so they're trying to put in firebreaks. They want to have the fire come to them rather than go to it."

As the day wore on, the volunteer added, "The good news is that the wind is pulling it back into the green forest [and away from homes]. If it had stayed in the tornado area, who knows where it'd go."

Piechota essentially confirmed his first statement later, thanking contractors for cutting firebreaks and access roads into the woods all day.

Besides cutting crews, a host of other civilians aided the effort. Some helped by providing food and water, some helped remove horses and similar animals, and others came in with fuel trucks. Likewise the effort saw state assistance from several agencies, including Department of Conservation and Recreation, Mass. Emergency Management Agency, the Division of Fire Services and the National Guard, which provided helicopters for 15-20 water drops (the choppers scooped water from East Brimfield Lake near Streeter Beach, while tanker trucks reloaded from the nearby streams).

Fire Marshal Stephen Coan warned people "we're not going to see any relief" from the current dry conditions for the foreseeable future. For that reason, he urged people to stay out of the woods with motorized vehicles, campfires and smoking, among other things.

"Part of what we're dealing with is just Mother Nature — there's so much woody debris on the ground," he added, praising the cooperation among state agencies and the emergency management process that brought things together.

"Wildfires often begin unnoticed, but spread quickly, igniting brush, trees and homes," added the MEMA website. "There are three different classes of wild fires. A 'surface fire' is the most common type, burning along the forest floor, moving slowly and killing or damaging trees. A 'ground fire', usually started by lightning, burns on or below the forest floor. 'Crown fires' spread rapidly by the wind, moving quickly by jumping along the treetops. Because 80 percent of forest fires are started by negligent human behavior, such as smoking in forested areas or improperly extinguishing campfires most are preventable."

The site also gives some advice for property owners when fires threaten them. Among other things, it recommends having escape plans for people and animals, shutting off propane, oil and natural gas sources, connecting the garden hose outside, putting lawn sprinklers on the roof and wetting it, having any firefighting tools (shovels, rakes, saws, buckets and (of course) extinguishers in a handy place, and have supplies on hand for evacuation.

Before nightfall, at about the time weather worries prompted the call to evacuate firefighters from the forest, Mother Nature was looking particularly unhappy. The sky above and just north of the command center at the school bus garage near the intersection of Paige Hill and Haynes Hill roads prompted Brookfield Asst. Chief Herbert Chaffee II to observe, "I don't like the looks of those clouds. We don't need another one of those things that came through last June."

Fortunately, the odd clouds disappeared fairly quickly without materializing into anything.

"Thanks to the tornado, this whole area is just acres of kindling wood waiting to ignite," said a Paige Hill Road resident who wished to remain anonymous. "People need to think twice about starting fires on dry windy days, and I can't tell you how many people I've seen throwing cigarettes out their windows in this area lately. Conditions are already bad enough for fires — let's not make them worse."

Holland Road was shut down for hours while firefighters battled the blaze. The Southbridge and Sturbridge fire departments were also involved in the effort — as well as several other town departments — with the Sturbridge FD providing a tanker to help combat the blaze.

Witnesses also reported that at least one homeowner was asked to evacuate. Firefighters were worried about as many as three homes being affected by the fire during the height of its wrath.

The National Weather Center issued a red flag fire warning on Wednesday afternoon, and with continued dry temperatures with low humidity expected throughout the week, additional warnings will likely be announced. In addition to the Brimfield blaze, Brush fires also popped up across New England, including New Salem and two locations in New Hampshire.

For more information about fire safety tips, as well as information about open burning regulation and permits, visit www.mass.gov.

Stonebridge Press
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