A fire trap? A major wildfire is inevitable in Plymouth County, warden says

Clara Long

Dry conditions, parched soil and highly flammable vegetation make Plymouth County a natural tinderbox vulnerable to a major wildfire, fire officials warn.

At the end of a dry summer, Ron Aseltine, the state fire warden for Plymouth County, is particularly wary of the threat an out-of-control brush fire could pose to houses, especially in recent developments like the Pinehills and Clark Estates surrounded by forests.

‘‘At this point, it’s not if it happens,’’ said Aseltine, looking out over the county from atop Plymouth’s 90-foot-tall fire tower. ‘‘It’s when.’’

The woods below are known as pine barrens, the fourth most fire-prone type in the country.

"The combination of sandy soils, pitch pine and low scrub oak makes for some very explosive vegetation,’’ said Aseltine.

Sandy soils hold little water, so they dry out quickly after a rain, and scrub oak is the perfect intermediate fuel to bring a fire up from the ground into the trees. Pitch pine, said Aseltine, is like lighter fluid.

‘‘When it’s dry like this, these pitch pines basically explode,’’ he said. When they do, a wildfire can crown, or burn the tops of trees, and on a day with some wind, spread extremely quickly.

Fire danger in Plymouth county during dry times is comparable to that of the arid West, where major forest fires rage every summer, said Dave Celino, the chief fire warden for the Bureau of Forest Fire Control.

While ecology makes Plymouth County a constant concern for state fire officials, forest housing developments compound the challenge.

‘‘Putting houses in the middle of the forest in this kind of vegetation really creates a hazardous situation,’’ said Aseltine.

Fires near wooded developments can be doubly hard to fight, said officials, as firefighters must split their efforts between putting out the fire and protecting homes.

Houses near the forest tend to have high property values, said Plymouth Fire Chief James Pierson. ‘‘Defending the houses takes the priority away from extinguishing the fire,’’ he said.

Two years ago, the last major brush fire in the area scorched 25 acres in the Clark Estates development. No houses burned, but the flames came within 50 feet of several homes at the end of Fairview Lane.

This year, lack of rainfall is making the pine barrens even drier and more flammable. The Smokey Bear sign outside Aseltine’s headquarters has read ‘‘Fire danger very high’’ most days the past several weeks. Aseltine restricted campfires in Myles Standish State Forest this week, and is urging extra vigilance on outdoor fires.

In wildfire management, where a half hour can mean the difference between a flare and a conflagration, fire towers are a low-tech key to a speedy response, officials said.

On a recent morning, Kathy Singleton, a fire tower lookout, spotted the characteristic white smoke of a brush fire as she climbed the third of seven flights of stairs leading to her post atop the Plymouth fire tower.

Singleton located the fire by using her compass and then triangulating her line of sight with other towers to find the fire’s coordinates. Within 20 minutes, Wareham firefighters began quenching the blaze.

At the site of the fire later in the day, Wareham Fire Chief Robert McDuffy supervised as firefighters kicked through a 600-square-foot charred area for live embers.

‘‘Thanks to the fire tower, the majority of the fire was right here when we responded,’’ he said. ‘‘We had no knowledge there was a fire out here.’’

But Aseltine doesn’t want residents to be lulled into complacency.

‘‘If we come and put the fire out once and they don't lose the house, they think we’ll always be able to,’’ he said. ‘‘But there will be a fire we can’t stop right away.’’

The possibility of a brush fire threatening houses torments Singleton at her lonely post.

‘‘You don't know what's underneath all those trees out there,’’ she said, scanning the horizon. ‘‘It's scary.’’

Clara Long of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at clong@ledger.com.

Major brush fires in Plymouth County

Year , Location, Acres burned

1957, Myles Standish State Forest, 15,000

1964, Myles Standish State Forest, 5,500

1990, Bourne Road, 50

1991, Ship Pond Road, 1,900

2002, Long Pond Road, 30

2005, Fairview Lane, 25