The thing you notice after a few minutes talking with Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, is that what you or I might call "brush," or "woods," or "forest," he calls "fuel."
"Fuel diameter, fuel type, fuel moisture, fine fuels — there are categories of fuel," Celino said.
When you get to know a little about his work, you start to understand why.
This May is shaping up to be one of the driest on record in the history of the Bay State. It's the kind of thing that, at this time of year, gets the folks who protect our forests a little nervous.
"Our responsibility is to aid and assist the cities and towns across the commonwealth with forest fire detection and suppression assistance," he said. "And that total acreage is just a little over three million acres."
That’s a lot of fuel. In fact it’s an area larger than the whole of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. And while the Bay State might not be Colorado or California when it comes to wild fires, they happen — more than you might think.
"In the last three years we’ve averaged anywhere between 1,100 and 1,500 fires reported across the state — wildland fires — and those are fires that are a quarter of an acre and larger," he said.
Those fires burn about 1,500 acres each year. But on this week in 1964, a single fire ignited in Myles Standish State Forest, near Plymouth that would burn for days. By the time it was over, 26 cottages and recreational facilities were destroyed, and 5,500 acres of woods were reduced to smoldering ash.
"At the height of that fire there were 11 acres burning per minute," Celino said.
Celino says there were a few factors that contributed to the huge blaze. One: “fuel type” — that’s how they categorize terrain — because each type burns differently. In Myles Standish, it’s all pitch-pine/scrub-oak barrens.
"That fuel is considered one of the most volatile fuel types in the country, second only to California chaparral," he said.
Another was that it was extremely dry. Then, like now, authorities kept a close eye on what they call fuel moisture. That’s the relative moistness of the dead leaves, sticks and branches that litter a forest floor. A safe number is about 15 percent.
"The fine fuel moisture started to drop, from May 24 at 10 percent all the way down to 5 percent on May 30," he said.
And then there was the wind, which started gusting at 35 miles per hour, driving the fire through the trees and up into the air.
"You can imagine firefighters trying to do direct attack up against probably 30- to 40-foot flame lengths it would be impossible and a it’s a very serious risk to the safety of the firefighter," Celino said.
Celino says during the fire — like all fires — lessons were learned. Techniques were used to help control that blaze that were experimental at the time, but are now used regularly. And while we haven’t had a 1964-sized fire event in Myles Standish in decades, Celino says that doesn’t mean we won’t.
"History does repeat itself for better or for worse," he said. "And when it comes to wildland fire we know that history repeats itself."
Celino points out that the last few decades have been unusually moist around here. Not so much this year. Already in 2015, 1,200 fires have burned more than 1,500 acres — well above recent averages.
"We know that the same fuel type is there," he said. "We know that that fuel type will still give us the same amount of fire behavior, that volatile fire behavior that they faced in 1964," he said.
Fire in Myles Standish state forest: A calamity, a lesson, and a reminder. It blazed through the pitch-pine/scrub-oak barrens of southeastern Massachusetts, 51 years ago this week.
If you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there's something you're just plain curious about, email Edgar at email@example.com. He might just look into it for you.