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Metro

Mild winter raises forest fire threat

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Brimfield Fire Chief Fred Piechota (right) and Lieutenant Jim Donovan surveyed the state forest Wednesday.

Extraordinarily dry conditions from the lack of snowfall - combined with all the fallen tree limbs from last year’s triple whammy of tornadoes, Tropical Storm Irene, and the Halloween-eve snowstorm - will make the next few months the most dangerous forest fire season in memory in Massachusetts, state officials warn.

The 3 million acres of forests are the equivalent of a tinderbox, and there have already been more than 70 brush fires, significantly more than David Celino, the state fire warden, can remember at this time of year.

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When the first fires of the year began sweeping through woodlands near Worcester in January, he thought it was odd, because brush fires are rare in the depths of winter. But blazes kept cropping up in copses, enough that Celino did something he had not done in 26 years of fighting fires for the state: He had to dewinterize trucks and other equipment that had been stowed away for the season.

“This has been really unusual,’’ said Celino, who oversees firefighting for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Last year, at this time, we had all but zero fires until April. The reason for this is simple: We just didn’t have winter.’’

Fire officials’ concerns have peaked this week, as temperatures rise into the 80s throughout the state, far surpassing records. This winter ranked as the second warmest ever recorded in Massachusetts, with the temperature between December and February averaging 33.6 degrees, more than 5 degrees above normal, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center in Ithaca, N.Y. The warmest winter on record in the past 117 years was in 2002.

“What we’re seeing now has the potential to make the perfect storm,’’ said state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, who also could not recall a fire season starting so early. “There are all the elements: the lack of a solid snowpack, all the debris from the natural disasters, and the historic high temperatures.’’

He now worries about strong winds and people flocking to the forests to enjoy the weather, setting campfires, rather than cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

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“All it takes is a spark from a dirt bike or a campfire,’’ Coan said, adding that the risk will remain particularly high until trees bloom and leaves add moisture. “We need to remind people, especially this time of year, that they be very careful in the woodlands, that they have to properly extinguish fires, and that they have a permit for a campfire.’’

He and others have also raised concerns about the hundreds of thousands of dead trees and limbs that have dried out on forest floors.

On Wednesday, a five-alarm brush fire burned three to four acres of heavily wooded land in Dover, N.H., said Dover Fire Chief Richard Driscoll. There were no injuries and no property damage.

Jeff Poirier, president of the Massachusetts Wood Producers Association, has urged state officials to allow logging companies to harvest much of the fallen timber. But logging in state forests has been suspended since 2009, when environmental groups raised concerns about commercial logging practices.

The state has since developed a plan that, if approved next month, would allow logging companies to cut trees in 40 percent of state forests. They previously had access to about 90 percent of state forests.

“At this point, it’s almost too late, because much of what fell in the forests has lost its value’’ because of decay, Poirier said. “If the state acted earlier, we would have paid them to clean it up; now, if they decide to clean it up, they’ll have to pay for it. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of timber lost.’’

Environmental groups say the state should leave the land alone, arguing that the fallen trees will allow the forests to regenerate more quickly.

“The timber industry is using scare tactics in an attempt to pressure the state agencies and frighten the public into approving more cutting of their critical public forests,’’ said Chris Matera, director of Massachusetts Forest Watch. “The flavor of the week is the threat of fire, allegedly due to downed trees from recent storms. But fallen trees are an essential part of a natural forest process and provide critical wildlife habitat.’’

Perhaps no swatch of state land is considered more potentially combustible than Brimfield State Forest, where trees spread across 600 acres were felled last June when tornadoes tore through the area. The forest floor is littered with brown leaves, bone-dry branches, and pine needles.

Brimfield Fire Chief Fred Piechota worries that one match or loose cigarette butt could be enough to light up the entire forest.

“These are really extraordinary conditions,’’ he said, noting many parts of the forest are inaccessible to firefighters because of all the debris.

“If a fire starts in that area, we’re not able to fight it in the incipient stage, and it may grow tremendously, impacting dwellings like never before.’’

For the DCR, which maintains about 450,000 acres of state land, the risky conditions come as budget cuts over the past three years have reduced the number of full-time firefighters and staff by one-third.

“In terms of managing possible forest fires, the cuts do present a challenge,’’ said S.J. Port, a DCR spokeswoman. “It certainly means we rely on municipal partners, fire towers, and other technology that we have more so than in the past.’’

Many of those municipal departments have suffered cuts of their own.

Paul Zbikowski, president of the state Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, said his Ashburnham Fire Department lost one of its four firefighters and has had to sell some equipment because of budget cuts.

“At this point,’’ he said, “all we can do is hope for April showers.’’

Globe correspondent Derek J. Anderson contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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