Madison Forest Fires Suspicious

[Editor’s Note: The NH Union Leader this morning is reporting a suspicious brush fire Monday night in another area. This fire was in Ossipee on Lyons Road, a small dirt road off Granite Road. Click here to read the story]

Madison — June 7, 2011 — Authorities say three recent fires in the Ossipee Pine Barrens are suspicious. New Hampshire Division of Forest and Lands has taken the lead on the investigation, said forest ranger Bob Boyd. The fires broke out on Nature Conservancy land near a trail head off of Route 41 on May 31, June 1 and June 5.

“We suspect it’s arson related,” said Boyd.”Anytime we have an arson it becomes a big priority.”

The pine barrens are especially dangerous because the plants in that area, such as pitch pine and scrub oak, can catch fire easily, said Boyd. As an example, Boyd said a fire on Easter Sunday of 1957 consumed about 2,500 acres in a six- to eight-hour time period. “They love to burn,” said Boyd of the plants.

Today, the area around the pine barrens is much more populated than in 1957. There are thousands of people who live year-round between Route 41 and Route 153. But in summer, that population swells to around 20,000. However, the recent fires were a long way from homes.

The first fire was reported around 11 p.m. and about a third of an acre was burned. Charred forest is clearly visible from the trail head. Madison fire chief Richard Judkins stressed that the second fire was not the aftermath of the first. Fire crews used thermal imaging cameras to make sure the first fire was extinguished. “That area was stone cold when we left,” said Judkins who suspects the fires were set at night.

The next afternoon, a second fire was reported around 2 p.m. That fire broke out closer to Route 41 and was spreading toward Route 41 but the wind shifted — directing it toward East Shore Drive. The second fire burned 3.1 acres. It took about 50 firefighters from several communities to put it out. Towns that sent firefighters were Madison, Ossipee, Freedom and Conway.

In total, the Nature Conservancy has about 341 acres in the pine barrens preserve.

Then on Sunday morning, yet another blaze was ignited. It was set in three locations that were about 200 yards farther to the east than the first two fires. Numerous East Shore Drive residents began reporting the fire Sunday morning after the wind blew the smoke in their direction, said Judkins. It took them about three hours to get the fire under control.

No firefighters have been injured so far. However, firefighters emerge from the woods covered in ticks, said Judkins.

All the fires have been set on Nature Conservancy property. The land is managed for hiking and biking. Nature Conservancy does hold prescribed burns to ensure the forest’s health and to mitigate potential losses from forest fires.

The fires can be seen  from a Class Six road that runs through the Nature Conservancy’s land. The fire was on one side of the road and didn’t spread to the other. The Nature Conservancy doesn’t have the authority to close the road, officials said.

Had the Nature Conservancy done nothing to its land, said Judkins, the fires would be much worse. “They do a great job,” said Judkins of the Nature Conservancy.

Wink Lees, of the Nature Conservancy, went to the site to inspect the fire damage. There he met up with Boyd and Judkins. Lees said the firefighters did a good job containing the blazes. Lees said the fires were “concerning.”

“They were definitely on top of things,” said Lees of the fire departments’ response.

Boyd said these fires illustrate the need for more forest fire education programs in that area. Specifically, there is a program called Firewise that teaches homeowners how they can reduce the risk associated with forest fires.

Nature Conservancy’s state director reacted to the fires in an e-mail.

“The conservancy has been reducing fuel loads, creating fire breaks and conducting carefully planned prescribed burns at the Ossipee Pine Barrens preserve in recent years, all of which benefit the pine barrens ecosystem while helping to ameliorate the likelihood and potential impacts of a wildfire,” wrote Daryl Burtnett.

“While all these actions help, it is the professional and effective response of the local fire professionals that kept damage from these fires to a minimum. We are concerned by reports that these fires may have been purposefully ignited without our knowledge and will, of course, cooperate in every way with local law enforcement to determine the cause of the blazes.”

Anyone who has information about the fires or anyone who needs to report a fire can call the Carroll County Sheriff’s dispatch center at 539-2284.

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