Devil's Hopyard State Park charred by fire; trails closed for now

Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection firefighter Eric Gileau, left, uses a high-pressure hose line to contain a backburn fire line along Foxtown Road at Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam Tuesday.
Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection firefighter Eric Gileau, left, uses a high-pressure hose line to contain a backburn fire line along Foxtown Road at Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam Tuesday.

East Haddam — Fueled by an abundance of trees felled by disease and by two powerful storms last year, a fire that started sometime Monday in a remote section of Devil's Hopyard State Park burned through about 50 acres, leaving large sections of charred forest just off one of the park's most popular hiking trails.

Winds gusting to over 20 mph, low humidity and lack of winter precipitation helped the fire spread quickly, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection officials said at a news conference Tuesday. Trails at the park are closed, but visitors can still use picnic tables or visit Chapman Falls and the section of the Eightmile River that runs through the main area of the park.

The fire, reported by teenagers Monday afternoon, burned the southeastern section of the park just off the orange-blazed Vista Trail, which leads to a rocky overlook. It passes through an area of dead and dying hemlocks infested by wooly adelgids, providing the main fuel for the blaze, Susan Frechette, DEEP deputy commissioner, said.

Because of the dry conditions and the large number of downed limbs in forests statewide, the state's fire risk is high and all open burning has been banned, even for residents who already hold local permits, Frechette said. The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for Connecticut because of weather conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fire.

About 100 firefighters from 25 local crews joined DEEP firefighters in battling the blaze. They worked through the night Monday and on Tuesday morning to establish breaks to contain the fire, Ralph Scarpino, head of fire suppression services for the DEEP, said.

"I want to note the great job that the local fire departments did," he added.

Fire protection lines were established around two homes closest to the fire, both on Jones Hill Road.

Water was brought to the scene on a bombardier — a special vehicle used in difficult terrain — and on tanker trucks, and also was drawn from a nearby stream, Richard Schenk, Eastern District fire control officer for the DEEP, said.

The cause of the fire is unclear, but it is believed to have been started by human activity, Scarpino said.

After initial suppression efforts Monday, the fire was allowed to burn itself out Tuesday because of the difficulty of getting equipment and water to the area, Scarpino said. He expected it would be out by late Tuesday. The fire sent huge clouds of white and brown smoke aloft, carried by the strong winds over a wide area.

Tuesday afternoon, about 15 DEEP firefighters worked along roads on the perimeter of the park, setting dry leaves and brush ablaze with torches and with handheld ignition devices launched into the forest.

"The winds are switching, so you could see some embers and smoke," Schenk told media gathered along Foxtown Road to watch the firefighters.

Sections along the road were allowed to burn for about 10 minutes before firefighter Eric Gileau extinguished the flames with a high pressure hose, supplied by a tanker truck carrying 250 gallons of water. Other firefighters, wielding rakes, shovels and a Combi — a cross between a pick and a hoe — turned piles of leaves and fallen branches to expose any hidden fire patches as Gileau trained his hose on them.

The strategy, Scarpino explained, is literally to fight fire with fire, robbing the approaching forest fire of fuel by deliberately burning in its path.

"This will burn right back to the main fire," he said, as low flames turned the forest floor orange and billowing smoke sailed into the air. "The main fire is about 1,000 feet back from the road now."

The controlled burn, he said, would consume only the debris on the surface, not damage roots of healthy trees and shrubs.

"This time of year, this won't cause a lot of destruction to the forest," he said.

j.benson@theday.com

Smoke from a major woods fire at Devils Hopyard State Park is seen from Hopyard Road Tuesday, March 27, 2012.  The fire burned more than 40 acres with over 100 firefighters from 25 area fire departments called to battle the blaze.
Smoke from a major woods fire at Devils Hopyard State Park is seen from Hopyard Road Tuesday, March 27, 2012. The fire burned more than 40 acres with over 100 firefighters from 25 area fire departments called to battle the blaze.

Fire protection and prevention tips

• Remove flammable vegetation and debris within 30 feet of homes and outbuildings.

• Prune lower limbs of evergreens within the fire safe zone. These catch fire easily during dry periods.

• Removing limbs overhanging roofs and chimneys.

• Remove leaves and needles from gutters.

• Do not store firewood near the house.

• Use fire resistant roofing materials.

• Make sure firefighters can find and access your home by marking houses and roads clearly and pruning away limbs and trees that would block fire truck access.

• Have an escape plan and practice it.

• Follow state and local open burning and open fire laws.

• Stay with outside fires until they are completely extinguished.

• Dispose of wood ashes in a metal bucket, soaking them with water before dumping them.

• Keep flammable objects away from campfires

• Have firefighting tools near campfires.

• Properly extinguish smoking materials.

For information, contact DEEP's Forestry Division at (860) 424-3630.

Source: state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection

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