Gov. Dan McKee (center) give his praise to first responders who responded to the Exeter fire on Friday. He is flanked by North Kingstown Chief Scott Kettelle (left) and Exeter Fire Chief Scott Gavitt (right). (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
EXETER — State officials vow to replant an estimated 300 to 400 acres of blackened forest scorched by a wildfire that may have started at an illegal campsite in the Queen’s River Preserve.
When they do, it will likely be the first time in years the land receives the kind of attention that might have helped mitigate the damage that Gov. Dan McKee surveyed Monday.
“You can tell that this was a fire that we have not seen in some time,” McKee told reporters while standing in drizzly weather outside the Exeter Job Corps Center. McKee added that the last fire of such magnitude was in the 1940s.
The fire was reported at about 2 p.m. Friday, and required temporary evacuations as 200 firefighters from across the region and Rhode Island National Guard helicopters fought to extinguish the blaze.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management announced over the weekend that they found evidence of a campsite on the property. Anyone with information can contact the Office of the State Fire Marshal Arson Tip-Line at (401) 383-7723.
By Saturday afternoon, the fire was 95% contained, Exeter Fire Chief Scott Gavitt said. No injuries were reported and no homes were lost, aside from a hunting cabin located in the woods. As a precaution, officials escorted nine horses from a farm to another location. The animals have since returned to their home pastures.
“Really heroic work provided by the firefighters and the people who were providing support,” McKee said.
Queen’s River Preserve is a 188-acre woodland preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy.
Camping is not allowed on the property. But investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and Department of Environmental Management announced over the weekend that they found evidence of a campsite on the property. Anyone with information can contact the Office of the State Fire Marshal Arson Tip-Line at (401) 383-7723.
The Nature Conservancy announced on its website it has closed the Queen’s River Preserve to the public.
Lack of active management
Trees ravaged by moth infestations and drought in recent years in turn become fuel for fire, said Ken Ayars, chief of the division of agriculture and forest environment at the Rhode Island DEM in an interview outside the Exeter Job Corps Center.
Last week, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning because the combination of gusty winds, low humidity and dry branches and grass on the ground increased the risk of forest fires.
“Our forests, in general, are in challenging conditions,” Ayars said.
“The reason that a lot of our forests are degraded is because of lack of active management,” Ayars said after joining other state officials who toured the site of the fire.
The size of the area affected is roughly half the 700 acres originally estimated by the state’s Emergency Management Association but at least double the size of the area scorched in the Big River Management Area in West Greenwich last week.
As the state moves to replant the Exeter forest, Ayars said DEM intends to clear dead branches from forest floors and ensure newly-planted trees have additional space between them to mitigate any future fire spreads.
Our forests, in general, are in challenging conditions.
– Ken Ayars, chief of the division of agriculture and forest environment, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
Replanting efforts will be paid from a $3 million fund specifically earmarked for forest and habitat restoration. This work applies only to state-owned lands, though Ayars said DEM will also provide assistance to land trusts on restoring its properties.
Ayars noted that the National Guard conducted a brush fire drill in Exeter just three weeks ago, “And they ended up coming out of the same pond we were practicing on,” he said.
In addition to replanting, Ayars said DEM is looking to find ways to mitigate the spread of future brushfires.
“We’re doing everything we can to remove the risk,” he said. “Our goal is to keep fires as small as possible.”
A spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy said the land trust is still weighing its options on how to proceed with fire mitigation efforts.
GOP leader critical over forestry funding
House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) said there needs to be more investment in DEM in order to further mitigate such fires.
To that end, Chippendale said he is requesting $180,000 to fund Conservation Districts — statutory organizations that work alongside DEM to help landowners manage their agricultural and forest land.
The districts currently get $50,000 in funding.
“It is well past time to properly fund this important resource,” Chippendale said in a statement. “The $180,000 my colleagues and I are requesting to fund these vital organizations is a drop in the budgetary bucket – but will go a very long way in assisting these groups to help manage our forested communities.”
McKee declined to comment on the bill, but touted the approval of a $50 million “Green Bond” in last fall’s election ballot for environmental initiatives and recreation projects.
“There’s a good chunk of those dollars that’s in for conservation and for making sure that we are monitoring the forests in the state,” the governor said.
Chippendale’s bill will be heard before the House Finance Committee on Wednesday.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.