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N.H. firefighters respond to second wildfire in one week

Part of the Bemis Fire, which is burning in Crawford Notch State Park, White Mountain National Forest, and on private land.
U.S. Forest Service
Part of the Bemis Fire, which is burning in Crawford Notch State Park, White Mountain National Forest, and on private land.

The Bemis fire continues to burn in the Crawford Notch area, as firefighters respond to their second wildfire within the span of a week.

While this fire is 25% contained as of Monday morning, it’s already burned 106 acres of land. That’s double the footprint of the now-contained Centennial fire, which was first reported last Monday in the White Mountain National Forest.

Rain has helped to minimize the spread, wetting the ground. But officials say dry conditions later in the week could make the fire grow again. Underneath the wet ground is a deeper layer of organic material that’s still dry, allowing the fire to keep burning.

Jim Innes, district ranger for the Saco district in the White Mountain National Forest, said having two larger fires back-to-back is unusual. Dry spring conditions have created a lot of fuel for the fires – a trend he’s seen in the past few years.

“We've had low snowpack the past couple of winters. We've had low precipitation. We're coming into every year under where we would normally be,” he said.

There are a few key ingredients that lead to wildfires, according to Dartmouth climate scientist Justin Mankin. Wildfires need an ignition source, fuels to burn and for those fuels to be dry.

Mankin says those ingredients are changing as our world warms.

For example, climate change is increasing temperatures during wildfire season. He says those higher temperatures increase how much water the atmosphere evaporates.

“Warmer air is able to evaporate more water off of the land surface,” he said. “And that means drying out those fuels," such as leaves.

In New England, there is less research on the connections between wildfires and climate change than there is in the Western United States, Mankin said. But, he said, this spring has been warmer than usual, and those warmer temperatures have contributed to fires.

As climate change enhances the risk of wildfires in New England going forward, Mankin said leaders have new questions to contend with.

“In a world where wildfire risk has been materially altered by global warming, by our consumption of fossil fuels, how do we…adjust to that? How do we adapt to that? And then how do we think about mitigating the risks?” he said.

Innes, the district ranger, has one answer. He’s been planning controlled burns to get rid of dry fuels in parts of the White Mountains, with the hope of protecting communities that surround the forest. Those burns are set to start this summer, he said, weather permitting.

At the moment, about 40 firefighters are helping contain the Bemis fire. Innes and his team are seeking out places where the fire is still burning to put it out. They’re also monitoring smaller fires in the area, which started after some lightning.

“Right now, we're just working on identifying where these hot spots are and making sure we get those put out so that when once the hotter, drier weather returns – which it will – they don't reactivate,” Innes said. “We'll be monitoring that area for a long time – weeks.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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