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Wildfires strike Akwesasne again this spring

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AKWESASNE - A recent string of wildfires in and around Akwesasne is leaving fire officials concerned, but they say it’s a regular occurrence and they are prepared to combat them.

“That’s pretty much normal over there,” Franklin County Fire Coordinator Ricky Provost said. “Most of them are set.”

But local fire officials say the blazes have potential to become much more serious than intended. “It’s something to be very concerned about,” according to Hogansburg-Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department Chief Derek Comins. “Someone could lose a house because somebody decided to light a marsh or a field on fire.”

Neither Provost nor Comins said they know why the fires are being set, and charges are rarely, if ever, filed against those who start them.

“It’s very difficult to catch somebody in the act,” Mr. Comins said.

Mr. Provost said the Hogansburg-Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department handles between 30 and 60 wildland fire calls in an average year, Mr. Comins said the vast majority are in the spring.

They handled 18 incidents between March 31 and April 8 that were labeled “wildland fire” on Franklin County 911 dispatch reports.

Mr. Comins said his department has not handled any wildfires in the last several days because of the rainy weather.

“Usually after we get a few days of rain... the grass starts getting greener and it slows down,” Comins said.

Firefighters will just let most of the fires burn, unless it gets too close to a structure.

“There’s really nothing there to protect,” Mr. Provost said. “They’re too dangerous to put out.”

He cited reasons such as vast tracts of soggy marshland making it difficult to get men and equipment in and also nearby bodies of water creating narrow escape routes.

Mr. Comins said his department had to call in the Fort Covington Volunteer Fire Department for mutual aid last week when a wildfire got too close to a structure, but firefighters were able to keep it from burning out of control. He said their normal tactic is to get to the scene and remain on-guard to ensure the flames are contained to marshland until it burns out.

“[The Hogansburg-Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department] is well-equipped, and they have a big contingent of manpower,” Mr. Provost said. “They do a good job.”

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spokesman Dave Winchell said that although DEC forest rangers don’t go into Indian country there is a statewide burn ban in effect until May 15.

He said because of the mild winter and subsequent hot weather there is a heightened danger of wildfires this spring.

“It’s really dry out there and things are catching easily,” Mr. Winchell said.

He added he is hearing an unusually high number of wildfire reports from various DEC regions.

He said that farmers can get exception to on-site burning of agricultural wastes as part of a valid agricultural operation on contiguous agricultural lands. The land has to cover more than five acres actively devoted to agricultural or horticultural use. The waste has to have been grown or generated on-site.

Mr. Winchell said they are entitled to the exemption since they traditionally rely on burning to prepare their fields for planting.

“They’re also typically better-equipped to contain open fires,” Mr. Winchell said. “They usually have tractors and larger hoses on-site.”

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