HARVARD -- On Nov. 24, a blustery Sunday afternoon, a brush fire consumed over nine acres of the Oxbow Wildlife Reservation, which is located within Harvard's borders in Devens and under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For residents in the Still River area of town, the fire came too close for comfort, prompting selectmen to take the issue up at their recent meeting.
Ceded to the federal agency after the Army left the former Fort Devens, part of the Oxbow land skirts railroad tracks on Still River Depot Road and the overgrown field that fueled the recent fire abuts a handful of private properties.
During a discussion aimed at sending a response to Fish & Wildlife on its fire suppression strategies in the wake of the Oxbow blaze, Town Administrator Tim Bragan explained how it started.
An arcing electrical wire struck a tree, he said, sparking a blaze that burned its way down the trunk to ignite tall grass below.
Selectman Leo Blair said that in the past, some nearby residents voluntarily cut the grass on the Oxbow land, but according to the residents, Fish & Wildlife recently told them to stop and that they would take care of it. But at some point, the agency apparently decided to let the field grow wild and only cut the grass every few years.
The area was overgrown when the fire broke out.
The first fire call came in at 3:06 p.m. that day, when an engine and crew were dispatched to check out a report of an arcing wire on Still River Depot Road.
On arrival, the first team of firefighters encountered a small fire, about a yard square, but as they unreeled the hose to douse it, the wind picked up and flames shot up about 15 feet.
Volunteer firefighter Duane Barber told a reporter that it was as if napalm had exploded. According to a newspaper story, wind gusts of 40 miles-per-hour fanned the flames, advancing the fire uphill to Still River Road as smoke blanketed the neighborhood, alarming residents and people attending a concert at the nearby Harvard Historical Society.
Crews from several area fire departments assisted Harvard volunteer firefighters at the scene, including Lancaster, Leominster, Devens, Shirley, Littleton and Bolton. Devens, Lancaster, Boxborough and Bolton sent tanker trucks, while Ayer and Littleton provided backup. One Still River resident said the trucks rolled right down his driveway and that firefighters did a great job.
Frigid and still windy as the day wore on, firefighters stayed on scene for three hours after knocking down the fire to ensure it didn't resurface. According to Sicard, his team headed for home around 7:40 that evening, after taking about an hour to stow their gear at the fire station.
Fire suppression plan under fire?
As selectmen discussed submitting suggestions to Fish & Wildlife about its fire control plans, Lucy Wallace said they should be "mindful of (the agency's) resource management plan," and that suppression was at issue rather than prevention.
But Blair said the town should be proactive about both. "This (issue) has a knowable history," he said, citing the residents who told him they mowed the field in question until Fish & Wildlife told them to stop.
"I have a wood roof and I am sensitive to the issue," Blair said, noting that he'd seen flames rising above the trees while watching from Prospect Hill Road on the day of the Oxbow fire.
Ron Ricci sided with his colleague. Since Chief Sicard was present at the meeting when the subject came up, he asked him what could be done to prevent another fire.
Sicard's answer was simple: Cut the grass in that field. Only the fact that abutters' grounds were mowed prevented the fire from advancing farther than it did, he said.
"Residents who had cut their lawns stopped the spread ... otherwise, we could have lost three houses," he said.
Oxbow neighbor Deborah Skauen-Hinchliffe said the field, originally part of the Watt family farm and used as a hayfield, has been neglected since Fish & Wildlife took over.
"It's not grassland, but brush," she said, responding to Wallace's earlier comment about the Oxbow's mission to provide habitat for protected birds. Bobolinks live there, Skauen Hinchliffe said, "but they don't like brush."
Besides being a fire hazard, brush from the overgrown Oxbow field repeatedly blows into her property's hayfield and it's not only a nuisance but costly to remove it, she said.
Skauen-Hinchliffe was not only critical of Fish & Wildlife for its management but also of the response to the fire, citing "lack of coordination" at the scene. "If this had been at night," there would have been houses lost, even deaths," she posited. "We should press our state representatives" to push for policy changes.
"You were part of the group" that supported the Oxbow land transfer, she said to Wallace, but the current scenario is not as promised and the federal agency hasn't lived up to expectations. "They are not proper stewards," she said.
"A formal response seems reasonable," Chairman Marie Sobalvarro concluded, and it was "sensible" for town officials to speak with one voice. Having obtained an extension to a pending response deadline, the board agreed that Sicard, Ricci and Wallace would work together to draft the letter.
"Let's make it clear that we're concerned and that Fish & Wildlife give us a plan" to maintain Oxbow hayfields so that surrounding properties in Harvard are safe," Ricci said.
Sicard said on Friday that he'd been in contact with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Zone Management office and had a tentative meeting set up to discuss fire suppression strategies for Oxbow and lay out Harvard's case.
"The harder part" will be squaring "what we want" with the agency's "biology" goals for Oxbow, he said, referencing resource management policies Wallace brought up at the selectmen's meeting.
"It will be a process," Sicard said, hopefully with satisfactory results.