HARVARD -- U.S. Fish & Wildlife administrator Libby Herland, who manages the Oxbow Wildlife Refuge and other reservations under the agency's jurisdiction, attended the Tuesday selectmen's meeting with department project leader Tom Eagle to talk about fire suppression in terms of wildlife conservation and habitat preservation goals.
The selectmen, however, viewed the subject in a less academic, more practical light: that of a fire in late November last year that burned nine acres of the Oxbow in Still River, engulfing the area in smoke and coming dangerously close to several homes.
After the blaze and in response to a standing request from Fish & Wildlife for input on its fire suppression strategies for Oxbow, the board tasked Fire Chief Richard Sicard, assisted by Selectmen Ron Ricci and Lucy Wallace, to draft a letter that included a fire prevention plan of their own. It includes mowing the former Watt pasture land where the blaze started twice a year and creating a 50-foot fire break between Oxbow and the residential area it borders on Still River Depot Road.
At the outset, it seemed the two F&W officials had come to give a prepared presentation about the program, migrating birds and types of habitat and would not veer off course. While interesting and informative, it wasn't what most folks in the room came to hear, however. For example, at one point Herland stated that the type of growth on the land in question would not fuel a wildfire.
"But it did!" someone in the audience yelled.
Herland said nobody was denying that the Oxbow fire happened or that it was scary for residents, but in her view, it didn't qualify as a "wildfire," for various reasons, including length-versus-height of the flames, kinds of vegetation and time of year.
Besides, she explained, clearing federally owned refuge land is a regional and national management issue rather than a local one. It falls within the parameters of Fish & Wildlife's long-range plans for the 16,000-acre Eastern Massachusetts complex the Oxbow is part of, she said. She sketched a "big picture" program that might include staggered schedules for clearing land or leaving it alone. "We have a landscape conservation cooperative with identified species of concern," she said, particularly migrating birds.
Noting the nonprofit agency's constrained budget and recently reduced staff, Herland said the complex is managed in part with the help of volunteers, including Friends of the Oxbow. Oxbow consists of about 1,677 acres and was established in 1974.
Oxbow is in Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, she said, most of it in the latter, with Fish & Wildlife now in Devens as well.
F&W refuges are not recreation space, per se, nor are they parks, but are for wildlife. Which doesn't mean the human element is left out. "We also manage land for people," Herland said, noting public uses such as maintained trails.
Citing a comprehensive conservation plan released in 2005, she said that some of the new rules are controversial, such as banning dogs in the Oxbow and discontinuing a snowmobiling tradition on the Watt land, about 121 acres purchased for over $1 million.
Her message was clear. Not everybody will like everything Fish & Wildlife does or does not do, but its administrators, shorthanded as they are, want to work with the town of Harvard, whose stated goal is to ensure the village of Still River is safe.
"I'm not hearing ... anything's changed," Selectman Ron Ricci said. "Nine acres burned and it could have taken out more," including people and homes, he said.
"That fuel type is not going to burn into the woods, as with crown fires," Herland said. She also said there's "virtually no fire risk" during the summer.
"Baloney!" bellowed a voice from the crowd.
Selectman Leo Blair said he had pictures of the Oxbow fire with flames taller than the 35-foot roofline of someone's house. "This was a hell of a fire!" he said. "Is there something else you can do this coming spring and fall?" he asked.
Sicard had been discussing that with project leader Dave Walker, Herland replied. "We do plan to mow the fields this year."
To that end, Herland said Eagle would coordinate with mower-volunteers in Harvard, whose names Sicard agreed to compile.
She and Eagle left with their mission unchanged, but it seemed clear that the conversation begun that night would not end then and there; that they had listened to what the board had to say and were open to working with the town to prevent another fire.