PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In the days after the brush fires in Exeter and West Greenwich, House Republicans said they could have been prevented or had the effects lessened. But is that true?
More than half of Rhode Island is covered in forest and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is in charge of taking care of about 20% of it — more than 73,000 acres.
The DEM has a field staff of 11, which House Republicans say is not enough to maintain the wooded areas.
“A healthy forest doesn’t want to burn as readily as an unhealthy forest,” House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale said. “The forests of our state have been neglected for a long time.”
Excessive underbrush and overgrown fire roads are factors Chippendale believed fueled the recent brush fires.
“The Rep. is not wrong here,” DEM spokesperson Mike Healey said.
Healey agrees the state’s forests are covered in dead and downed trees but points to nature as the culprit, rather than neglect.
“Gypsy moth infestations weaken trees over time,” Healey said. “We’ve had two droughts in the last five years, extreme droughts.”
House Republicans have been pushing for more funding in the state budget for the DEM’s Forest Management, like $180,000 for the state’s three conservation districts and $200,000 to add two forest rangers — neither of which Gov. Dan McKee supported in his proposed budget.
“We’re setting ourselves up for a calamity,” Chippendale said.
At the fire site three weeks ago, McKee said funding isn’t the issue and his office said staffing isn’t the problem either.
“Even in the last go around, the bond that was passed, $50 million for green space, a portion of that was for management of forestries,” McKee said.
In a statement sent to 12 News, it pointed to 16 full-time employees for the DEM approved in last year’s budget, and eight more proposed in this year’s.
“The DEM feels pretty lucky over the last two budget cycles for the support that we’ve gotten,” Healey said.
A portion of the money from the green bond has already been used by the DEM to train municipal firefighters on how to fight wildfires.
About a half dozen of those who went through the training helped put out the wildfires last month.