5 Questions: Joseph Pries

Joseph Pries

Joseph Pries (Photos provided by DEC)

Joseph Pries is the state forest ranger for Putnam and Dutchess counties. Earlier this month, he and seven other rangers spent 14 days in Quebec fighting wildfires that have burned 23.7 million acres and sent smoke into the Highlands and across the eastern and central U.S.

What did you do in Canada?
We were sent to an area under the lines that supply power to a lot of Quebec, and even as far south as New York City. A lot of it was chasing smoke in the black [areas that had already burned] to make sure the fires didn’t reignite. There were large pockets of unburned fuel. If those took off again, and there was a big wind, they could create spot fires by throwing embers.

You were assigned to the Micoua Fire Complex, which covers 40,600 acres. Is that the biggest fire you’ve fought?
No, the biggest was a fire that covered a million acres in Alaska in 2009. As in Quebec, there was rain, but rain doesn’t do it all. There are still hot spots and smoldering when the sun comes out, but it’s under the roots. At that point, the fires are underground. When it gets underground, it’s not easy to put out unless you’re digging with hand tools. In both fires, that’s what we were doing.

A burned area in Quebec

A burned area in Quebec

Besides their size, how did the fires in Quebec compare to ones you fight in New York?
The terrain and vegetation are different. They have steep cliffs that are impassable. We had to use helicopters to get around, because otherwise you’re going to be driving for six hours in an ATV. In New York, most of the time the fire is close enough to a road that we can walk to it. 

Why do these fires take so long to put out?
A lot of it is the drought. It was a lot drier than they were expecting. They’ve had 150 new fires from one thunderstorm. That’s astronomical. I’ve never heard of so many fires starting in one day. They think they’ll burn until the snow starts falling. We were trying to put out our fire 100 percent, no smoke, because it was by power lines. They use infrared from helicopters to seek out hot spots and make sure they’re completely out, but they can only use infrared in certain conditions. For instance, they can’t fly when it’s raining, and they can’t use infrared when it’s too hot or sunny. If they want to keep that fire 100 percent out, they have to find the right time to fly up there and use the infrared. If they find something, they have to send in more crews. 

Pries and the other members of the New York crew

Pries and the other members of the New York crew

How long does it take a forest to recover from fires like this?
It could take years. But I’ve seen forests down here — if it’s the right time of year, especially spring fires — it’ll burn off the top layer of leaf litter and you’ll have ferns in two weeks. It depends on how deep the fire burns into the ground. If it gets superheated, it can ruin the seedbed. In New York, we have these pitch-pine cones that only open up when they’re burned. Up there, I’d say it’ll be a couple of years before they start getting that regeneration.

One thought on “5 Questions: Joseph Pries

  1. Thank you for highlighting the important and dangerous work of fighting forest fires. A lot of people like to complain about the smoke from the Quebec fires but have little sense of how difficult the work is.

    Hopefully the lessons learned can help us locally with fire prevention and mitigation. Thank you, Forest Ranger Joseph Pries, for your work and dedication. [via Instagram]

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