"If it was July, it would have been in Rockport," said Gloucester firefighter Mike Sonia.
He was speaking of the blaze kindled Thursday in the city's tinder-dry Dogtown woods. Eighteen firefighters, supported by two forestry trucks, had battled the brush fire, which blackened five acres of southwest Dogtown, about 400 yards from the city compost yard off Dogtown Road, for more than an hour, staying until 10 p.m. soaking the ground. Firefighters returned Friday morning to check for hot spots.
The Dogtown blaze was the city's first major brush fire of the year, and firefighters who extinguished it said it wasn't a surprise with the dry and windy weather conditions. A week ago, Mayor Carolyn Kirk closed the city's woodlands when the National Weather Service placed the region under a "red flag" warning for fire danger.
Cape Ann, and most of New England, hasn't seen a heavy rainstorm, or heavy snowstorm, since October. That, and the recent high winds have dried out Cape Ann's woods.
With weather like this, Thursday fire won't be the last one, said Stephen Aiello, Gloucester's acting fire chief.
"That's why the woods have to remain closed until we get a large amount of precipitation," he said.
It's not just old leaves and brush that are dry out there; Aiello said the ground is as well.
"Because everything is so dry, there are several different sources of ignition we can't control," Aiello said. "We can try and control human sources of ignition."
Residents doing anything that involves causing sparks outside, such as riding dirt bikes through the woods, should be careful, as they could cause a fire.
"Everything is that much more vulnerable for fire danger," said Essex Fire Chief Dan Doucette.
But unlike Gloucester, the Cape Ann towns haven't closed off local woods.
Essex firefighters dealt with several small brush fires in February, caused by permitted burns that got out of hand. For the last five days, Doucette said the town hasn't given permits out because of the "red alert" issued by the National Weather Service. The State Fire Marshal's office sets the burning season from Jan. 15 to May 1. Much of that, so far, has been under a "red flag" or "no burn" status.
But, if the red alert gets pulled back, Doucette says the Essex Fire Department will issue permits on a day-by-day basis.
Manchester Fire Lt. Tim Crosbie says Manchester firefighters haven't faced a brush fire of their own yet. The town has had some permitted controlled burns, but hasn't allowed any since the red-flag warning went into effect.
"With the dry conditions, and no rain, and with some of the wind, the brush and underbrush is very dry at this point," Crosbie said.
"I don't see it changing yet," said Rockport Fire Chief Jim Doyle.
The Rockport Fire Department fought a brush fire near Pigeon Cove in February, he said. At the moment, the town isn't allowing controlled burns because of the red-flag circumstances. He, like Cape Ann's other fire chiefs, is hoping for rain. If it stays like this in the summer, he said, he'll be more concerned.
"When it starts getting summertime, kids get out into the woods and campfires get out of control, that's what I'm worried about," Doyle said.
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Mayor Carolyn Kirk closed Gloucester's public woods to all visitors, despite there being no signs posted at trail entrances telling would-be hikers to stay out.
The closure notice is only posted on the city website (http://gloucester-ma.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=293).
Acting Fire Chief Stephen Aiello said that lack of signs is something the city is going to address, and that he's looking to have some posted at Dogtown's heavily used entrances.