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Brushfire threat remains for Devonshire Marsh

One year after a wall of fire sparked by an industrial accident charred 30 acres of Devonshire Marsh, conditions there remain ripe for another blaze.

Spurred on by strong winds, the fire swept the reserve despite a massive effort by the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service.

The fire, which threatened several businesses and residences, and repeatedly jumped the main road, remains “a perennial threat” at the wetland, the Bermuda Audubon Society warned.

The blaze of March 17, 2018 was “accidentally caused”, according to the BFRS report, obtained by The Royal Gazette.

Investigators ruled that winds carried a spark from welding at Island Construction, where an employee was working outside on top of a shipping container, 90 feet into the marsh.

Once covered in trees, the reserve has become a haven for flammable invasive plants.

Staff at Island Construction raised the alarm at 7.30am, but winds which had been forecasted at up to 35mph swiftly drove the flames southeast and out of control.

For Graham and Joanna Frith, whose home juts into the marsh at the base of Brighton Hill, an ordinary Saturday quickly proved to be unforgettable.

Ms Frith recalled boarding an early flight to New York, when a stream of pictures and messages to her phone showed the blaze advancing on her house.

“Graham ended up having a more interesting weekend,” she said. “What made it surreal was coming back on Sunday night with our house and all our belongings untouched. I realised just how lucky we were.”

Mr Frith was initially told by neighbours it was “nothing to be too worried about”.

He added: “Ten minutes later my neighbour asked if I had the keys to my car, because I might need to move it — it had gotten bigger and crazier.”

Returning home, he found a fire truck in front of his home, and was told by the landlord to “get what you can as quick as you can, and get the hell out”.

This summer, the Friths will mark seven years at the residence, which they love for its wooded surroundings and wildlife.

But the wetland, denuded by cattle grazing and the loss of endemic cedars, today teems with bracken and sawgrass that became tinder.

Mr Frith said: “It was unbelievable, watching how fast it moved. It was like a microcosm of the California fires.”

He locked up the house, grabbed a few valuables, moved his car and tried to rescue their cat, which “took off like a bat out of hell”. Their pet returned later.

Mr Frith spent the day watching the blaze, which was doused as it ignited trees across Middle Road, but swept perilously close to businesses on Marsh Lane.

It also burnt around the edge of his property and scorched palmettos in his yard, but came no farther.

“All the firemen were out doing a fantastic job,” Mr Frith said. “But they had a tough day. Seeing how close it came, we were unbelievably blessed.”

Today, Mr Frith said, the marsh looks as though “nothing happened”.

“It's cool to watch nature take it back,” he said.

Asked if he worried of a repeat, Mr Frith said: “Older people talked about when there were fire channels. Right now there's no way to cut a fire off.”

In the immediate aftermath, staff from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources had easy access to cull more than 300 flammable invasive plants from the centre of the marsh.

A year later, open-water ditches remain the best option for limiting a recurrence, the Audubon Society's report said.

Waterways dug in the 1940s criss-crossed the marsh and were maintained until about 20 years ago. The report advised that reviving the channels could provide fire breaks in the future, as well as water for firefighting.

To read the report into the Devonshire Marsh brushfire, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”

Dangerous brush: early on March 17, 2018, a wind-driven fire that consumed much of Devonshire Marsh begins to advance on the home of Graham and Joanna Frith (Photograph supplied)

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Published March 18, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated March 18, 2019 at 7:20 am)

Brushfire threat remains for Devonshire Marsh

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