2021-06-05-STEVENSCOLUMNPIC

The singed overlook on Pine Cobble in Williamstown looking towards Mount Greylock.

My sister lives in a brittle part of California. In recent years fires there have been measured in square miles instead of acres, ash has fallen like snow, the air has been thick with smoke and her house has been threatened on several occasions.

So, no, I don’t think I’ll chat with her about the brush fire that burned in the woods behind my place, the largest fire in two decades in Massachusetts.

Still, the East Mountain fire that began on May 15 burned some 950 acres before more than 120 firefighters, assisted by helicopter water drops, contained it. It glowed orange on the ridges at night and could be traced by the white smoke it gave off during the day.

The commonwealth is regarded as having asbestos forests; that is, conditions are generally wet enough that the trees resist flame. Unusual drought last summer led to 700 combined acres of burn statewide and may have contributed to the current fire. The East Mountain fire began at the start of a dry period, but conditions were damp enough that neither the duff nor the standing trees caught, for the most part. Rather the downed leaves and wood carried the flames quickly up hill on the western side, pushed by the prevailing wind.

It began near Henderson Road in Williamstown, then moved into Clarksburg State Forest, which borders Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. Firefighters from communities in both states used leaf blowers to clear the trails, hoping they would stop the spread; and then saws, to cut additional fire breaks. The darkened patches tell the story of which breaks were effective and which the flames jumped. Once the fire reached the ridge, it grew significantly, engulfing the ridge itself and the hillside leading down from the Pine Cobble lookout toward North Adams.

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Yet over the five days before it was mostly contained, it did not seriously threaten any houses. It was more spectacle than human life-altering. It didn’t even clutter the numerous hiking trails; on the Appalachian Trail, the local portion of which was closed for the duration, only a tent platform at the Sherman Brook Campsite was destroyed.

The general area of this fire has burned periodically. As recently as 2015, a small fire threatened the AT near Sherman Brook. Other fires hit the area. A fire in September 1929 clipped much of the woods north of Williamstown and North Adams, incidentally clearing what is taken as the summit of East Mountain, benefiting blueberries, pitch pine and views — all of which were singed this time. The actual high point of the mountain is somewhat farther north.

Old-timers say that forest fires, while infrequent, used to be more impactful. The ’29 fire burned on a five-mile front from Williamstown through North Adams to Clarksburg, with 10 additional miles in Vermont. The next year, the Great Taconic Wildfire burned a tri-state area in northwestern Connecticut, New York and into Massachusetts. Perhaps the largest in the region, it was measured in square miles, although just how many is open to debate.

The Tekoa Mountain fire in Russell burned 1,100 acres in April 1999, the most recent in the commonwealth larger than the East Mountain blaze. Not large, certainly, by West Coast standards, yet large enough to remind us not to take our forests for granted.

Perhaps the East Mountain fire has reduced the potential for a more damaging fire later. In any case, we should be careful with fires in the woods. At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

Lauren R. Stevens, a writer and environmentalist, is a regular Eagle contributor.