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What is Boston Doing to Prevent Fires in the Fens?

What is Boston Doing to Prevent Fires in the Fens?

Boston, MA– Yesterday, a fire broke out in the tall reeds of the Fens park area (inside the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, near Park Drive and Brookline Avenue). A column of smoke could be seen from around the city. CBS Boston reported that one man suffered serious burns and had to be rescued from the Muddy River by fire crews as they extinguished the blaze. The man was transported to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Firefighters extinguished the blaze around 1:30 p.m.

The cause of yesterday’s fire is unknown, but fires in the Fens are a common occurrence. The Boston Fire Department responds to fires in the area pretty much annually (twice within one week in 2016). The reeds by the Muddy River serve as dry kindling that feeds the fires. These reeds, called “phragmites,” are an invasive species and a known fire risk, as they cause dry, dead material to accumulate.

Last August, the office of State Senator Will Brownsberger (D) put together a comprehensive report on the history of the city’s efforts to control the phragmites. (Brownsberger represents the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District which includes Belmont, Watertown, and parts of Allston, Brighton, as well as the Boston neighborhoods of Fenway-Kenmore and Back Bay.)

In a wild environment, fires would be a natural way to control the reeds. However, in a city setting, naturally occurring brush fires are too dangerous in a public park where people are often walking the paths. In 1994, the Boston Parks and Recreation Department (BPRD) proposed several options for controlling the phragmites.

Herbicides were ruled out as potentially harmful to other species in the Fens. Covering the reeds with black plastic was deemed ineffective at reducing their growth. That left mowing (or other means of cutting down the reeds).

It wasn’t until 2005 that the BPRD received approval to mow the reeds in a limited area of the park, which has now been converted to turf. However, the reeds along the river’s “buffer zone” remained.

The Wetlands Protection Act of 1972 has been a stumbling block for further intervention to control the reeds in the areas closer to the river. The law requires wetland permit applicants to demonstrate that any alterations near waterways would have no adverse impact on the surrounding environment.

Last year, the BPRD successfully applied for an Emergency Certification that would allow them to contract a third party (Clean Harbors) to clean up the dead material and debris using shovels, rakes, and wheelbarrows. A majority of the area surrounding the river will be cleaned up in June and July of 2019.

While there is not a long-term strategy in place, the BPRD continues to explore options for controlling the phragmites.


Image via Wikimedia Commons / amysayrawr