Dry conditions result in largest Rhode Island wildfire since 1942

Over 700 acres of land were burned in Exeter during the April wildfires. Photo Courtesy of: Department of Environmental Management

A wildfire struck in Exeter, Rhode Island on Friday, April 14, burning over 700 acres of forest.

A press release from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) on April 15, said DEM has been investigating the cause of the fire. Investigators say a possible cause was a campsite found at the Queen River Nature Preserve.

“However, the investigation is ongoing,” DEM said.

This is the second wildfire in Rhode Island since 1942 according to WPRI. They also said that no one was injured and no homes were damaged.

  Nancy Karraker, a professor in the department of natural resources science, said a fire like this is nothing compared to wildfires in the west coast. Last summer, a wildfire broke out in New Mexico covering over 350,000 acres of land.

“So the scale of fire here in Rhode Island is pretty tiny,” Karraker said.

Karraker said fire is a natural part of ecosystems in most places. Elements of our forests here are fire-adapted, meaning that over time, our forests have adapted to dealing with fire. Karraker said as humans, we think of fire as a scary problem; disturbing our homes but natural environment fires have been a long-term natural ecological process.

“So I would say many ecosystems require fire like the different types of pine trees,” Karraker said. “They need fire in order to release seeds from cones.”

Karraker added that with fires, there’s always some direct and indirect morality that occurs to plants and animals. As humans, we might see it as an impact but it might not necessarily have a long-term impact on their populations. For example, if there’s a fire in a grassland during bird nesting season, some nests can get burnt out but the birds can easily fly out of danger.

“An interesting concern to me is a species like the Eastern Box Turtle which is pretty hearty against fire, can bury itself in soil. As long as the fire doesn’t burn where they are, the turtles can survive,” Karraker said.

Karraker also said this fire may have a positive impact on the University of Rhode Island community because it generated interest and curiosity in the event. She said she thinks it’s fascinating to her that people in the URI community are talking about it and thinking about the impact.

“People are probably learning things like these ecosystems have adapted to some extent of fire and it’s not a terrible thing,” Karraker said.

Besides the investigation update, Karraker thinks another cause of the fire could be due to the dry and windy weather. According to Karraker, a few days prior, there was a 150-acre fire in West Greenwich, which could’ve been caused by a cigarette or a campfire, and the wind could’ve spread it across the land.

Karraker said this impacted her personally because she thought it was interesting. She’s from Arizona and worked on researching endangered salamanders and studying the effects of fire on wildlife in New Mexico every summer.

“It affected me positively because I got the chance to talk to the students and professors in New Mexico about what the effects of wildfire mean to wildlife,” Karraker said. “There was no negative impact really.”

If another fire were to occur in Rhode Island in the future, Karraker stated the most important thing needed is fire education. We’ve been living for over 200 years with fire suppression because we as humans are afraid of fire. If there’s a fire in your home you have to put it out immediately, but in the wild, we shouldn’t be alarmed. It’s a natural thing, she said.

The Fire Marshal and DEM encourage anyone with information about this fire to contact the Office of the State Fire Marshal tip-line at 401-383-7723.