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Fire danger in Mass. rises as heat returns, drought worsens

MEDFIELD, Mass. — Brothers Hank and Mike Zoob hiked through Rocky Woods Reservation Tuesday – and came away with these impressions.

“Well, the trails are very dry,” Hank said.

“The pond is very, very low,” added Mike. “It’s not good. It’s not healthy. Not healthy for people. It’s not healthy for the vegetation -- the flora and the fauna.”

In fact, the flora and fauna are increasingly facing a new risk, as the drought in Massachusetts has increased in severity and size. With 93 percent of the Commonwealth in a state of drought – and nearly half suffering through a severe drought – there is growing concern about forest fires and brush fires, especially with more blistering temperatures expected.

Monday, a spectacular brush fire burned through nine acres of land in Gloucester. The fire chief said part of what made that blaze difficult to fight was the fact root systems on trees are parched. That allows fire to spread underground.

“Our properties really have a high risk of fire danger, given that most of them – many of them – are forested,” said Mike Francis, the Trustees of Reservations Stewardship Manager of Charles River Valley properties.

Adding to the danger, Francis said, the dryness of the forest beds. He notes that any carelessly discarded flammable object could ignite a fire under current conditions.

The drought has worsened the situation, to be sure, but Massachusetts forests have been stressed for years as a result of previous drought and the tremendous damage suffered years ago because of moth infestations.

Combined, those things killed many trees – and numerous carcasses remain standing.

But even among trees that are alive, all is not well after a summer where frequent promises of rain seemed to just evaporate. Some are even shedding leaves, fall-style.

“Unfortunately, it’s not so much turning a pretty fall color,” Francis said. “It’s really just browning and dying. The trees are starting to undergo a lot of stress.”

On weekends, Rocky Woods offers a limited number of camping sites. Francis said, for the moment, the Trustees – in a decision made jointly with the Medfield Fire Department – have prohibited campfires.

That’s a decision that could be reversed this weekend – if rain falls. But the way things are going this summer, that’s a big ‘if.’

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