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Reporter Debrief: Climate Change And Forest Fires In The Northeast

A fire on a small island in the Merrimack River in Concord is one of several reported across the state in recent days, as dry conditions continue. This photo was taken on Sept. 22. The fire was extinguished Sept. 23rd.
Bow Fire Department, courtesy
A fire on a small island in the Merrimack River in Concord is one of several reported across the state in recent days, as dry conditions continue. This photo was taken on Sept. 22. The fire was extinguished Sept. 23rd.

Nearly all regions of the three northern New England states are experiencing some level of abnormally dry conditions right now, with some areas in a moderate to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And that's leading to the potential for wildfires.

It's nothing near what's happening in the western United States, but fires are still a risk here, with little significant rain in sight. A wildfire was contained over the weekend in Killington near the popular Deer Leap hiking trail, and in New Hampshire, fires have begun sprouting up around the state. Energy and environment reporter Annie Ropeik has been covering those fires for New Hampshire Public Radio.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with NHPR reporter Annie Ropeik. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So I mentioned the one fire that firefighters got under control recently in Vermont. What's the wildfire situation like in New Hampshire where you are right now?

Annie Ropiek: There are a lot of scattered fires that have been reported in the past several days. Like you said, we've had a severe drought almost all across the state. We've had red flag days several times. These are mostly just small, contained fires, you know, nothing that's been burning for many, many days or out of control, but little things started by camp fires in the White Mountain National Forest.

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There are a couple of smoldering fires from old lightning strikes that have been contained in places like Hanover. We have a fire burning on a little island in the Merrimack River near the state capital of Concord, as of Wednesday. So it's really all over the place. And they've been staffing fire towers and running air patrols to try to scout out these fires before they can spread.

Editor's note: NHPR reports the fire in the Merrimack River island was extinguished Wednesday afternoon.

In terms of the conditions that are leading to this, why has this been such a dry year throughout the region?

So there are a few factors. We had a low snowpack winter, and so that snowpack is really supposed to recharge the groundwater, kind of keep the ground saturated through the winter… So we didn't come in to the summer with much moisture in the ground. And then, we haven't had really any substantial rain all summer, really just, you know, a half an inch here and there; nothing sustained.

Fire fighters respond to a forest fire on a small island in the Merrimack River near Concord, N.H. on Wednesday morning.
Credit Nick Capodice / NHPR
Fire fighters respond to a forest fire on a small island in the Merrimack River near Concord, N.H. on Wednesday morning.

Even when we've had heavy dumps of rain, these big sporadic bouts of precipitation, they've been too much for the ground to absorb in too short of a time. So they haven't been as effective at recharging the moisture in the soil and some of our surface waters.

So this has led to drought that has spread and intensified since May, and there's really no end in sight to this. The topsoil is super dry. That's a fire risk, and we're starting to see impacts to drinking water, to surface waters that they use to fight fires and to agriculture.

And I know there've been some water use restrictions. What are residents being asked to do during these drought-to-dry conditions?

Yeah, right now we have at least 150 towns that have some kind of restriction on outdoor water use. That's the focus, typically, because it's sort of a less essential use for washing your car or watering your lawn. You're using more water at a time, using your hose, so that's sort of what they target as something they can pretty reliably tell people to stop doing or only do on certain days.

About half of the state uses private wells and so those are unregulated. But those users are really being encouraged to stagger their heavy water use, so you know, maybe you don't do laundry two days in a row or something like that. Because the shallower your well is, the more likely it is to run dry sooner.

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Well users are also being told to expect that well impacts from the drought could sort of lag behind the worst of the drought conditions, because it takes a while for the dryness to kind of get down as deep as the wells go. And so, you could have people seeing, you know, sediment pulled up in their well water or other issues with their drinking water, water quality into later fall, even if we get some rain, which is not in the forecast right now.

Let's put this in some context. Of course, we hear about fire season in the western United States, where fires are an annual occurrence and are getting worse. But how unusual is it, historically, for wildfires to be sprouting up at this time of year around New England?

We really have more of a seasonal pattern of this here. You don't get sort of these long sustained droughts and these many, many months of fires. It's a little more sporadic, a little more contained, but we do have fires here. They are fueled by different kinds of trees and leaf litter. Again, you know, not the desert conditions that you see out west. But you'll have fires started by campfires that burn up in popular recreation areas.

Curious about how your county is faring? Follow the United States Drought Monitor, here.

In our last severe drought in about 2016, there was a fire that affected the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains. And we've had larger fires in New England. You know, you can go back to 1947, the fire that affected Mount Desert Island, where Acadia National Park now is, that scorched tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of acres all across Maine and New Hampshire. So these things can happen here. They can affect property. It's not as frequent or as sort of common of a risk in New England as it is out west, in part because we're more densely populated, more developed and just sort of a wetter climate overall. But in drought years like this, this is certainly a risk.

Hotter, drier weather fueled by global warming is part of the reason that fires in the West are getting worse. But generally, we've heard that climate change will lead to more precipitation in the Northeast. So are the conditions we're seeing this year attributable at all to climate change?

Yeah, it's a bit of a paradox, but this is part of our climate story. So we are going to see more precipitation overall, especially heavier, more intense precipitation. But it's also going to be more volatile, less sort of sustained or predictable or consistent.

So in years like this, you know, we have had some big, heavy bouts of rain. We've had effects from tropical storms, but we also haven't had that nice sustained period of gentle rain, a little bit every day that really is what's needed to keep the ground moist, to recharge rivers and streams. That's a climate change impact.

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We're getting hotter. It was one of the warmest summers on record in much of the region and that low snowpack winter that also precipitated this drought, that's also a climate consequence. Our winters are getting milder. We're seeing less snow and the winters are also getting shorter, so these shoulder seasons are coming earlier. Fall is, you know, a little bit milder than it used to be. And all of these things create drought conditions even as we see these heavier bouts of rain that we're going to trend toward overall.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Copyright 2020 Vermont Public Radio

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
Henry is a reporter and host of All Things Considered on VPR.
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