DEM to ‘prescribe’ more fires, including on Prudence Island

Controlled burns a tool to maintain habitat and plant diversity

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/3/23

PORTSMOUTH — Prudence Island is one of four areas in Rhode Island where the R.I Department of Environmental Management (DEM) intends to prescribe more controlled burns starting this spring …

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DEM to ‘prescribe’ more fires, including on Prudence Island

Controlled burns a tool to maintain habitat and plant diversity


PORTSMOUTH — Prudence Island is one of four areas in Rhode Island where the R.I Department of Environmental Management (DEM) intends to prescribe more controlled burns starting this spring and stretching into the fall.

DEM said the strategy of increasing the use of low-severity prescribed burns will reduce the buildup of combustible materials on forest floors and grasslands, thus minimizing the risk of high-severity, unplanned, destructive wildfires. 

In 2022, which was marked by a severe drought that the state only now is recovering from, Rhode Island experienced more than 80 wildland fires. Parched conditions forced DEM to ban outdoor fires at all state campgrounds, parks, and management areas for a two-week period in August.

“Prescribed fire is an important land management practice DEM uses to restore degraded forestlands, promote diverse wildlife habitats, and remove hazardous fuels to protect rural communities from wildfires,” said Pat MacMeekin, who manages DEM’s Forest Fire Program. “We are working to return fire to the landscape where appropriate, to improve Rhode Island’s ecological systems and increase public safety.”

During an online press conference held Friday, MacMeekin said DEM will be conducting the controlled burns on the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NBNERR) the department manages on the south end of Prudence Island. 

NBNERR protects and manages about 4,400 acres of land and water on Prudence as well as Patience, Hope and Dyer islands. The Reserve, which monitors water quality and biodiversity, analyzes land use, habitat change and the impact of climate change on sea grass, manages about 60 percent of Prudence Island.

MacMeekin couldn’t provide a specific scheduled date for the burns on Prudence. “In terms of the time, it’s a little hard to say. So much of this is weather-dependent. Once we can look at the weather and approach fire season, we’ll be able to put that out there,” he said.

Prudence Island, he said, “is especially challenging because it is an island, so it’s difficult to get our firefighting equipment out there.”

Besides Prudence Island, the other areas slated for an uptick in planned burns are the Nicholas Farm Management Area, Coventry; Pratt Farm, Arcadia Management Area, Exeter; and Dutch Island, Jamestown.

“These four areas were specifically chosen because they have a history of fires in the landscape,” said MacMeekin.By planning fires in periods of low risk, we have a lot more control.”  

He said there’s been a “long run-up behind the scenes” to initiate the new strategy, which will put Rhode Island more in line with the land management policies and practices of neighboring states Massachusetts and Connecticut. “We’re been workin on this for years in the background.”

Public notice

Healey said one of DEM’s most important goals with its announcement is to prepare the public.

“When the public sees smoke someplace, they get anxious,” he said. “We know that ultimately there’s nothing we can do to alleviate the anxiety of everyone, but part of this is to have a very robust community notice and outreach plan.

Any time a burn is planned, DEM will issue multiple public notices leading up to the fire on its website, through the media, or on Facebook and Twitter, he said.

“As we did with our last prescribed burn on Dutch Island last March, DEM will begin public outreach and notification efforts around 30 to 45 days before our first burn in 2023, again about a week before the event, and then again a day or two before the burn when a reliable burn window can be established based on weather and wind conditions,” said Ken Ayars, DEM’s chief of agriculture and forest environment.

Experts from DEM’s Forest Fire Program, a subsidiary of the Division of Agriculture and Forest Environment, will lead the prescribed burns, which require local permits.

DEM: It gets results

DEM says that along with protecting humans from extreme fires by reducing hazardous natural fuels, the right fire at the right place and right time help to:

• remove invasive and unwanted plant species that threaten ecosystems.

• slow the spread of pest insects and disease.

• restore native ecosystems such as pitch pine barrens, pine-oak woodlands, and maritime grasslands and shrublands.

• promote the growth of native warm season grasses and wildflowers to diversify pollinator habitats.

• recycle essential nutrients back into the soil.

• train municipal and wildland firefighters in the methods and techniques of suppressing wildfires.

Staff members from DEM cited the successful impact that controlled burns have had on the habitat on Dutch Island, where the last prescribed burn was carried out in March 2022, encompassing about 40 acres.

John Veale, a wildlife biologist for DEM, said Dutch Island was full of invasive species, much of which was removed from tree chipping and then the controlled burns.

“The difference between when we started and when it was finished was pretty dramatic. It’s pretty impressive, when it works, in getting some of those invasives out,” Veale said,

Added Michael Healey, DEM’s public affairs officer, “We’re already seeing milkweed out on Dutch, which is huge for a pollinator habitat.”

MacMeekin said each burn  has a “shelf life” of about three years. “Because we’re just starting out here and ramping up this program, if we can get just two or three prescribed fires this spring, we’d call that a success,” he said, noting DEM would ideally want to increase the acreage it burns next year.

For more information on DEM programs and initiatives, visit 

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.