Forest rangers in the state Police Benevolent Association who traveled to Nova Scotia and Quebec to assist in this summer's record-breaking Canadian wildfires want state lawmakers to take action next year to ensure the state will be better prepared in case a similar event strikes New York in the future.
A perfect marriage of dry conditions and hot temperatures have intensified hundreds of wildfires across Canada — scorching more than 27 million acres across the country, or an area about the size of the state of Virginia. The ongoing fires caused a smokey haze to blanket much of the state last month, leading to decreased air quality.
Fifteen New York forest rangers traveled to Nova Scotia and Quebec to get some of the flames under control, and are reflecting on what they learned as one crew continues to help in East Quebec City.
Art Perryman, director of state forest rangers with the state PBA, helped battle a 60,000-acre blaze in Nova Scotia last month alongside firefighters from other Northeastern states. An arsonist set a piece of wildland on fire — building to a magnitude Perryman recounted he'd never seen in that climate after a summer of little rain, low humidity and winds.
"In Nova Scotia, they hadn't had rain for over 30 days," he said Wednesday. "...It's very difficult to even fight the fire because that level of flame lengths and that intensity, you really can't even get close."
Perryman, who's been on the job for more than 22 years, says the experience shows wildfires of this unprecedented size could be possible in the state under the right conditions.
He's pushing for lawmakers to review and modernize the state's fire management policies, including allowing prescribed, or controlled, burns currently banned in the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Dead and diseased wood and vegetation can serve as kindling for wildfires, which Perryman said should be burned under the correct conditions and supervision.
"You're doing that periodically so that when there is a wildfire, you don't have that fuel load to make it just as destructive," Perryman said.
Prescribed burns are permitted in fire-prone areas like Albany Pine Bush and the Long Island Pine Barrens and reduce stand density, fuel build up and manage invasive species, according to a statement from the state Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday. Department officials would not indicate their support to expand where prescribed burns are permitted.
"Managing New York’s forests for the long-term is a priority for DEC and will ensure New Yorkers can continue to experience the vital benefits of forests, including the protection of our water and air, the conservation of wildlife habitat, and the employment of thousands of people in the forest products, outdoor recreation and tourism industries,"
Typically, 12 to 15 state forest rangers are sent out-of-state each year to help extinguish significant brush or wildfires.
PBA members in support of the change also want lawmakers to create a fund to help increase the number of rangers sent annually to combat large fires elsewhere. They propose the fund could be used to more quickly reimburse park ranger divisions for additional labor costs while members serve elsewhere, or replace aging wildland fire engines and equipment.
Rob Praczkajlo, a forest ranger of 23 years with the state PBA, led a 14-person crew last month helping to get areas burning in Quebec under control. His crew helped fight four of 115 fires burning in the area at the time caused by lightning strikes, and destroying 4.5 million acres with flames engulfing one tree to the next with 400-foot flames. The state's Adirondack Park is roughly 6 million acres.
"From June 1 when all those fires ignited until the time we arrived, they had basically triaged and we're using all of their resources to protect the communities," he said.
Praczkajlo said rangers working in a variety of different conditions is akin to gaining years of experience in a matter of weeks, and helps them be better trained using helicopters and methods to fight respond to a similar blaze in the state.
"When they are sent on a fire in New York and the fires burning in similar fuel types, they have an anticipation of how that fire will behave," Praczkajlo said. "...that ranger may never they may not be on a fire in New York state for two or three years, or they're on a very small fire. So the seven rangers that I took to Quebec, they gained five to 10 years of experience of firefighting equal to what they'd have in New York."
About 95% of wildfires in the state are caused by humans, according to the DEC.
"DEC is not aware of any current data that indicates a trend of worsening wildfires in New York state, but will continue to closely monitor any potential changes to determine if policy or other changes to current practices are needed," according to a statement from the department Wednesday.
The state's 25-year average for wildfires suppressed by DEC forest rangers from 1998-2022 was 190 fires per year over 1,641 acres per year, according to the department. The 10-year average from 2013 to 2022 is 135 fires annually burning 1,422 acres per year.
The statewide spring burn ban enacted in 2009 has decreased the number of annual fires and burned acreage.
Perryman has plans to meet with state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos about lessons learned in Canada and their desired changes in the coming weeks.
To prepare in the meantime, DEC forest rangers provide basic wildfire training to local fire service firefighters, including annual refresher courses to all qualified wildland firefighters statewide, Forest Ranger Lt. Scott Jackson said in a statement. The DEC also participates in training and exercises hosted by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Incident Management Team, DHSES Office of Fire Prevention and Control and FDNY Incident Management Team.
"These refreshers commonly include local examples and discussion of recent incidents," Jackson said. "...DEC has also participated in the New York Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy since its inception in 1997. This academy provides training and exercises in wildland fire suppression and incident management to a variety of local, state and federal agencies."
Projected impacts of climate change could contribute to more frequent and severe wildfires, but DEC officials say it's difficult to tie a trend to the changing climate with the majority of incidents caused by human actions.