This coming spring, a prescribed burn will take place in Sandwich for the first time in recent memory, thanks to a grant through MassWildlife.
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director David DeConto said that MassWildlife granted DNR and the Sandwich Fire Department more than $23,000 to perform the burn, which will take place in the center of the town’s Maple Swamp Conservation Lands.
The burn will provide several benefits, Mr. DeConto said. First, it will help the health of the forest by promoting new growth, creating a better environment for plants and animals. It will also reduce the amount of dry brush that could fuel wildfires. Lastly, it will provide training for firefighters who may not have seen a forest fire firsthand before.
“We always try to look at multiple reasons why we do things,” Mr. DeConto said. “We try to get the best bang for our buck with grants.”
While there have been prescribed burns held regularly on Joint Base Cape Cod, there have not been any in recent history that have taken place in Sandwich.
“Some of that stems from money,” Mr. DeConto said of why controlled burns have not happened. “Some stems from former fire chiefs looking at prescribed burns differently.”
Fire Chief John J. Burke is on board with and excited about the grant.
Mr. DeConto said that one reason why the grant money has come available has to do with Southeastern Massachusetts being second only to California when it comes to being at risk for forest fires. This is largely due to having large swathes of forestland across Cape Cod.
Even without prescribed burns, there have still been efforts to reduce wildfire fuel in Sandwich. Namely, mowing along the roads to reduce dry brush, Mr. DeConto said.
The area is no stranger to forest fires and newspaper archives depict the stories of multiple serious fires, particularly in the early 20th century.
An article from the Sandwich Observer on May 2, 1911, describes a fire that started near Johns Pond in Forestdale and had been burning for a while before being discovered. Several buildings at a nearby sheep farm were destroyed.
“The men never stopped from five at night until five in the morning except about 10 minutes when they had frankfurts, cheese, and crackers for supper,” the article states.
The fire was suspected to be the work of an arsonist.
A fire that started on the military base on April 27, 1938, was the reason for a memorial boulder that still stands on Route 130, near the wooden figure of Smokey Bear. The blaze swept over thousands of acres across Sandwich, Bourne, Falmouth and Mashpee.
During the fire, five firefighters became trapped in a circle of flames in Forestdale. Gordon King, Clarence Gibbs, Thomas Adams, Erwin Draper and Henry Jarves were rescued and initially taken to Cape Cod Hospital to be treated for their burns. Within days, Mr. King and Mr. Adams died from their injuries and in June of the same year, Mr. Draper succumbed as well.
The memorial was dedicated a year later and is inscribed with the names of the men who died.
“Their Supreme Sacrifice Should Inspire Us All to Strive for the Goal They Sought—The Preservation of Our Forests and Wild Life,” the plaque states.
Mr. DeConto said that while some people believe that controlled burns are counteractive to forest preservation, the opposite is actually true. He said that forests that grow unchecked will actually go through a culling process on its own.
“This is a way to reproduce what Mother Nature would naturally be doing,” he said. “We need to manage the resources.”
The prescribed burn is set to take place next spring, although a date has not been set. Mr. DeConto said that there are several factors to take into account before a date is set, including projected winds and wet weather.
Mr. DeConto said that the burn will be taking place in an area that is not close to residences and that there will be an announcement ahead of time so that the burn will not be a surprise. All of the work will also be overseen by New England Forest and Fire.