This was the year the West burned.
The numbers are mind-boggling: By the end of November alone more than 56,000 wildfires had burned 9.1 million acres in the west. Thousands of homes and other buildings destroyed. Scores killed. Losses in the billions.
And the flames roared into December. Huge fires ripped across California, including several monsters around Los Angeles and San Diego. It was the worst fire season in the history of a state where large fires are almost routine.
You might think it couldn’t happen here.
The experts say that it might. After all, it did once before, not too long ago. And, they add, even if we don’t get fires on the scale of California, we’re likely to see more wild land fires in the coming decades.
All it takes, they say, are the right combinations of causes and conditions. And with the climate warming, and many climate change models predicting drier summers and more frequent droughts, the chances of an intense outbreak of wildfires could go up.
We live in a much wetter region of the country than the western U.S. And our forest is usually much less susceptible to extreme fire. Some call it the “asbestos forest.” It’s even less susceptible to fire than the true boreal forest of Canada, where lightning-caused fires are frequent and typically burn vast acreages, said Andrew Barton, a fire ecologist, professor of ecology at the University of Maine at Farmington and co-author with Charles Cogbill and Alan White of The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods. “Fires in the boreal forest are typically crown fires that kill nearly all trees in the forest, which then initiates a new stand.” The same thing rarely happens in Maine, Barton said.
Our Acadian forest is different, Barton said. It’s generally mixed hardwoods and softwoods rather than mostly conifers. Among evergreens, red spruce dominates rather than the black or white spruce of the boreal forest. “The Acadian forest burns very rarely, extremely rarely,” said Barton. “Because of moisture, rain and cool summer temperatures. But mainly because it’s a moister forest. It doesn’t dry out as much.”
But, he said, “if you go back a few thousand years you see it wasn’t always like that. Several thousand years ago during a warmer and drier time, fire was more common in Maine. The evidence for that fiery period comes from core samples taken from the bottom of lakes, in which we find charcoal. We can reconstruct the history of fire going back to the glaciers.”
Barton is talking about the period that’s known as the Holocene Climatic Optimum — some 5,000 to 9,000 years ago (in Maine, 5,000 to about 7,000 years ago). It was part of a natural climatic cycle caused by changes in earth’s orbit around the sun, the tilt of the earth relative to the sun, and the planet’s “wobble” on its axis, said Barton.
These days we’re facing another warming period, this one due to human civilization’s contributions: greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Climate scientists continue to tweak their models to get a grip on the effects in various regions of the world. In Maine, the prognosis is for significant warming (three degrees by the end of the century) and increased precipitation (less snow, more rain), and bigger rainstorms in the cooler months. The summers will likely be drier because of the higher temperatures. As, perhaps, two summers ago, when much of the state was gripped by drought for months.
“Logic says if things get hotter and drier it will increase the possibility of forest fires starting and spreading. The degree to which that happens, we don’t know,” said Barton. But it has already happened in U.S. Southwest, where Barton does fire research. Warmer and drier weather over the past three or four decades, combined with a buildup of fuel, led to extensive conflagrations over the past 25 years.
Of course, drought by itself doesn’t mean there are going to be wildfires, but it does make them more likely, said Tom Parent, the executive director of the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission, a forest fire response consortium that includes seven northeastern states and five Canadian provinces.
“When you have dry conditions it’s easier to ignite a fire and you expect more of them,” Parent said. And he noted that droughts don’t just end with winter. If the ground is already frozen when snow comes, then in spring much of the accumulated precipitation will simply run off rather than seeping into the ground. “Essentially, you’re starting the season with the previous season’s drought,” Parent said. “When we hear about big fires it’s usually due to multiple years of drought, not one year. Those ‘accumulating droughts’ can add some complexity to the situation.”
In Maine, the fires of 1947 provide an object lesson in what can happen when all the right conditions come together.
It’s known as the “year Maine burned.” Between October 13 and 27 there were 200 fires in Maine that burned a quarter of a million acres of forest and wiped out nine towns, according to an article on the New England Historical Society website. The fires destroyed 851 homes and nearly 400 seasonal camps and left 2,500 people homeless. Half of Acadia National Park burned and most of the mansions of Bar Harbor’s “Millionaire’s Row” were destroyed.
Fires burned from York County to Washington County. Also interesting is where they didn’t occur: the forest of northern Maine.
Lloyd Irland, a forest economist who has researched the historical incidence of fire in Maine, said the great fire of 1947 was a “150-year event.” But it’s crucial to take a wide-angle view, he said. In all, 690,000 acres burned across the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada within a matter of days.
Snow melted early that spring and it stopped raining in early summer. By October the state had been three months without rain. By Oct. 16, 20 fires burned in Maine, according to NEHS. The Bar Harbor fire started Oct. 20, but really took off when the winds picked up three days later, turning it into an inferno that incinerated 9,000 acres in one day.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Irland said, there were more periods of large fires, up until the late 1950s. Then it was calmer, then “extremely calm.” “But looking at the area burned doesn’t tell the whole story. Crunching the data shows that the number of fires each year remained fairly consistent, he said, while the numbers of big fires dropped. “That tells us that we have been able to take care of the fires when they’re small,” he said. “But it also tells us fires aren’t going away.”
In addition, “since the 1960s we have had unusual numbers of wet fire seasons and the climatologists can’t explain it. But it has cut back the intensity of the fire season. The number of fires hasn’t plunged, but their size has changed due to a speedy response,” Irland said.
After 1947 Maine took fighting wildfires more seriously, said Parent: towns set up volunteer fire departments, the state government was given more authority to coordinate fire suppression efforts, training improved, there was better equipment and better communication between state and towns and town and town. The state went to aerial monitoring for forest fires.
What hasn’t changed, Parent notes. is that prolonged periods without rain can result in an extremely dry forest. Dry forest and dry fuels plus ignition, throw in some wind and you’ve got a formula for a really bad fire season.
“I would still argue that the chance of 250,000 acres of fires over a short period of time in Maine are slim,” Barton said. “On the other hand, more fires in Maine in the future? Very possible.”
“It’s all a matter of whether we get the moisture,” said Parent. “It’s all a matter of fuels. And good growing weather means more fuel. When you do have a drought there’s more to burn. The major difference between the West and here is the amount of moisture. Of course, the forest is different. We have more hardwoods. But, having said that, if it’s dry, it’s dry everything.”
We are simply used to sufficient moisture to keep the entire forest from turning into tinder, said Parent. We get complacent. “That is one of the challenges in this part of the world. When we have fires, people take notice and pay attention,” he said. “It takes vigilance to stay prepared.”
“Even without any future climate change a 1947 fire season could easily happen again,” Irland argues. He says we need to prepare for the worst, but “one of the hardest things is to persuade people to think of the unthinkable. You have to stress test your system and recognize that you have to be ready for something outside your experience.”
Irland and Parent note that there are differences between now and 1947.
The good: whole tree harvesting leaves less slash in the woods. There’s a better road system to get access to fight fires. Firefighters today are better trained. Maine forest firefighters get invaluable experience working monster fires in the western U.S. and Canada. Thanks to those same mutual aid agreements firefighters from places like Montana and Quebec will come to Maine to fight fires.
The bad: there are many more people living in isolated wooded areas; volunteer fire departments are having trouble filling rosters; and forestry schools don’t teach basic fire suppression like they used to.
Worst case is a region-wide extreme fire season, said Irland. In that case, other states and provinces might be too busy with their own fires to send bodies and equipment, including air tankers, to help fight ours. The cavalry may never arrive.
“A challenge is to bring more property owners to take the risk seriously, and adopt fire wise practices on their lots and homes,” Irland said. “If a big one blows up, don’t assume the government will take care of it.”
“If we don’t have the bodies, the people power, we need, it would be a big challenge. Multiple big fires would strain our resources,” said Parent, adding that the state’s capacity to deal with an extensive outbreak of fires has shrunk. “It would be much more difficult to manage them,” he said.
Joe Rankin writes on forests, forestry and nature. He lives in Maine.