PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s been two months since smoke from the wildfires raging in Nova Scotia shrouded the Northeast, sparking four straight days of air quality alerts for Rhode Islanders.
But while most Rhode Islanders went back to their normal routines once the smoke dissipated, Aidan Quinn and Phillip Russell traveled up north to lend a helping hand.
“A lot of people unfortunately lost their homes because of these fires,” Russell said. “We got to talk to a lot of them and they were all really appreciative of us being there.”
Both men are wildland firefighters with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s Forest and Fire Program. Quinn and Russell are also members of the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew (CIFC), which has a mutual aid contract with eastern Canada.
“It was my first assignment to Canada,” Quinn said. “But I’ve been to different western states.”
When large-scale incidents happen, the CIFC deploys specialized fire crews to assist local agencies.
Both men helped fight Rhode Island’s largest brush fire since 1942, which burned around 600 acres in Exeter back in April. But they described Nova Scotia’s wildfire as being “a whole different animal.”
“They fly us everywhere out there cause there’s not a lot of access,” Quinn said.
“The terrain was very different,” Russell explained. “Small spruce forests, very flat terrain and a lot of bogs.”
Quinn and Russell spent 14 days providing support to Nova Scotia — hiking to remote areas, mapping what had already burned and searching for hot spots.
“Canada has a 100% extinguishment policy,” Russell said. “They make sure everything is out cold.”
Late last month, Canada surpassed a record set in 1989 for the total area burned by wildfire in one season — and it’s not over yet.
“I think a good takeaway from what we saw [in Nova Scotia] was having a defensible perimeter around your house,” Russell said. “A lot of these people had trees right up to their houses. It just burns right up to it.”
The DEM said three zones need to be addressed when creating a defensible space around your home:
- Zone 1: The area nearest the home extending 5 feet out should be clear of all flammable bushes and trees.
- Zone 2: This is an area of fuels reductions designed to reduce the intensity of a fire approaching your home and generally extends 30 feet. Clearing pine needles and other fuel sources is an important annual maintenance step.
- Zone 3: The area farthest from the home and typically extends to 100 feet beyond all structures and benefits from thinning not only to reduce wildfire hazard but also increase tree health.
“These big fires that we had earlier in the season, you know, they hadn’t been seen in 100 years,” Quinn said. “People don’t really have that sort of thing in the back of their mind.”
When they’re not battling wildfires, Russell and Quinn spend most of their time preventing fires from happening.
“It’s a lot of fuel management,” Russell said. “We do a lot of prescribed burns earlier in the season, which is good for habitat restoration.”
Earlier this year, DEM conducted controlled burns at Coventry’s Nicholas Farm Management Area and Exeter’s Pratt Farm-Arcadia Management Area. The DEM previously conducted a prescribed burn on Dutch Island in March 2022.
Prescribed or controlled-burns are used to reduce invasive plant species that can pose a threat to the local ecosystem, according to DEM.
“It’s not all going after fires every day.” Russell said. “It’s a lot of habitat restoration.”
The DEM’s Forest Fire Program includes five full-time and two seasonal staff members. Right now, no staffers have been deployed to out-of-state wildfires, but two people are listed as available in case there’s a request.