HARVARD -- Selectmen at their meeting last Friday morning discussed and finalized a response letter to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "scoping" document on fire suppression at the Oxbow Wildlife Refuge, with input from Fire Chief Richard Sicard.
The gist of the letter they agreed to send was more than a formal response to the agency's outreach, however, targeting not only fire suppression but also prevention and venturing into Fish & Wildlife land-management policies. Their main concern was the area of the Oxbow in the Still River area of town, where a brush fire consumed 9 acres of land on a windy Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago and came dangerously close to area homes.
When the board talked about the fire at a previous session, Sicard stated that only residents' well-mowed lawns stopped the late November fire from spreading further. If those yards were densely treed or overgrown with brush, like the former farmland over which the fire rapidly moved that day, those homes would have been destroyed, he said.
Selectman Leo Blair blamed Fish & Wildlife's lack of maintenance of the former Watt land, which the agency purchased several years ago and formerly cut twice a year versus semi-annually now. Allowing the area to grow wild for longer periods was apparently a management measure to create bird habitat but was likely also due to state budget cuts. Either way, it had a disastrous effect, he said.
Neighbors mowed Oxbow fields and former pasturelands near their homes until Fish & Wildlife told them to stop, Blair said, and others attested that was true. Now, in the wake of the recent fire, it is the board's responsibility to take action to prevent another fire, he said, a position he stated even more strongly at the Dec. 20 meeting.
"When they don't act, we need to be able to or somebody is going to die!" Blair said. "If it started at 3 a.m., (instead of 3 p.m.), some people in this room wouldn't be here today."
During the recent discussion, Selectwoman Lucy Wallace, who worked with Sicard and fellow board member Ron Ricci on the initial draft of the letter in question, said they should stick to the subject at hand. "Bear in mind what we're responding to," she said, adding that she had spoken with Fish & Wildlife's Oxbow manager, who had agreed to meet with Sicard and the board to talk about the issue.
Wallace also said she'd learned that it was an "unshielded" electrical wire that set a tree afire and started the conflagration, which was previously blamed on an "arcing" wire. "We should ask National Grid to assess all our power lines," she said, since many of the wires in town run through forested areas.
But Blair drew the focus back to the state agency and its management of Oxbow. "Their needs and concerns are baloney compared to the safety of town residents," he said.
Ricci agreed that protecting town residents should be selectmen's main concern. "We need to ask for exactly what we want," he said: That Fish & Wildlife mow the hayfields and pastures at least twice a year between June 1 and Nov. 1.
The selectmen's letter also called for a 50-foot firebreak on both sides of Still River Depot Road, bordering the Watt land area of Oxbow.
As far as who does the mowing, Sicard said that in his talks with Fish & Wildlife officials, they indicated it was fine for neighbors to do it. "They are very willing to work with us," he said, conceding that it would be a good idea to get that OK in writing.