With drought conditions contributing to wildfires throughout the eastern United States, officials are wondering whether 2016 marks the beginning of a scary new trend. More than 119,000 acres burned in eight southeastern states last year, and New Hampshire saw its largest wildfire since 1903.
The Covered Bridge Fire in Albany, N.H., consumed 329 acres of the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) last November. It came during one of the forest’s most susceptible times. Spring and fall in the White Mountains typically see the most acres burn, says David Govatski, a retired U.S. Forest Service (USFS) fire and aviation manager. A lack of humidity and greater exposure to sun and wind dries out leaf litter from April to June and again in October. “All it takes is some source of ignition,” Govatski says.
Climate trends could be increasing that risk. A long-term environmental study performed by USFS at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Woodstock, N.H., reveals a gradually shortening snow season. USFS data show that snowmelt (when the ground is left bare) occurs an average of 12 days earlier than 49 years ago, while the year’s first measurable snowpack is arriving 1.7 days later each decade. Longer periods of exposure to drying sun and wind during the shoulder seasons could mean more frequent and larger fires.
While climate models predict an increase in precipitation in the Northeast over the next several decades, that comes mostly in the form of rain during winter months. “This seasonality is important,” says Georgia Murray, an AMC staff scientist. “Hotter summers with little precipitation add stress on forests and aquatic ecosystems, and potentially result in drier conditions that increase the risk for fire.”
Other climate-related stress is visible already. Disease and insects are moving north with warming temperatures, killing trees and creating more fuel for fires. High-precipitation storms, another product of climate change, cause blowdowns in concentrated areas. The Covered Bridge Fire, in part, was fed by trees downed in a 1998 ice storm.
Unusually large fires also burned farther south last November. One, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, covered 17,000 acres, killing 13 and forcing the evacuation of nearby Gatlinburg, Tenn. While the cause of the blaze remains under investigation, severe summer drought and strong winds contributed to its rapid growth. Several other states in the Southeast, including North Carolina and Georgia, experienced an above-average number of fires.
Early 2017 data suggests more reason for concern. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Southeast experienced its driest winter since 2012, and New England had its driest since 2002. This translates to minimal snowpack, earlier snowmelt, and higher fire risk for both regions.
Chris O’Brien, a USFS fire management officer in the White Mountains and a duty officer for the Covered Bridge Fire, says existing fire prevention programs remain in place. Campfire permits are required across most of the state, and WMNF staff are working to educate campers about proper extinguishing. Fire danger levels are also posted online and throughout the forest daily.
O’Brien says a prescribed burn, scheduled for this year or next, will help reduce fuel that remains in the area of the Covered Bridge Fire.
Whether or not 2016 signals a growing risk, individual responsibility is key to preventing forest fires—and that’s a message the USFS has promoted for decades. As O’Brien says, “Everyone has heard of Smokey Bear.”