Preparedness & Recovery

The East Coast is in the Hot Seat

Regions other than the West are now facing large wildland fires.

by Madeline Bodin / April 24, 2017
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The forest fire burned for four days last November. On the fire’s second day, crews of federal, state and local firefighters boarded buses beyond the fire’s farthest reach. There, they created a fire line, using hand tools, leaf blowers and blowtorches, a local newspaper reported. At one point, authorities considered bringing in helicopters to dump water on the fire.

By the time the fire was contained, 329 acres had been scorched. That may be small in comparison to the half-million acres that burned in the 2007 California wildfires, or the half-million acres burned in Arizona’s Wallow fire in 2011. But what was surprising about this fire was that it happened in northern New Hampshire, where the climate is generally cold and wet, and wildland fires of more than 100 acres are rare.

The Covered Bridge fire was the largest fire in the 100-year history of the White Mountain National Forest and was more than twice the size of the next-largest fire.

Two weeks later, the mayor of Gatlinburg, Tenn., declared that the fire burning there, which killed 14 people, and destroyed 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures, “is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” Typically, high humidity and frequent fog keep the area’s fire risk low.

Wildland fires can happen anywhere under the right conditions. Communities in even the coldest, wettest and swampiest parts of the country are preparing for wildland fire, and experts urge every community to adapt to resist wildland fire, restore and maintain their natural landscapes to prevent fire, and plan their response.

Three long-term trends — decades of fire suppression, climate change and development in the wildland-urban interface — are changing the risks even in places where large wildland fires are rare.

FIRE HISTORY

“History repeats itself,” said Michael Stambaugh, associate research professor at the University of Missouri. “The places that burned will burn again.” Though the nation was surprised by the Gatlinburg fire, Stambaugh was not. He knew that fires had once been much more frequent in Tennessee, and that the conditions at the end of 2016 were right for it.

“Fire is a chemical reaction,” Stambaugh said. In the natural world, the recipe is fuel, in the form of vegetation, and a lack of moisture, including dry air. A high temperature speeds the reaction. Deserts are hot and dry, but don’t burn because there isn’t much vegetation. A Mississippi swamp has plenty of vegetation, but it’s usually too wet to burn. Ecosystems with frequent fires manage to mix abundant vegetation with dry conditions.

“We live in these fire-prone locations,” Stambaugh said, such as south-facing slopes that dry out quickly. Often, though, we don’t know where fire was common in the past. “We don’t realize it until the conditions support the supreme event.”

Stambaugh and his colleagues at the University of Missouri have studied thousands of fire scars on hundreds of trees from across the eastern half of the United States. They found that wildland fires were once much more common than they are now, even before European settlement. Historically, the East had more frequent fires than the West.

For the past 100 years, the policy has been to put out wildland fires quickly, so today, forests contain more fuel. When fires do come to the forest, they can be much more intense, with consequences for human lives and property.

CLIMATE CHANGE

“History is where it all starts, and then we get to the idea that history is changing,” said Erin Lane, North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. One of the two major changes altering historical fire frequencies is the change in the global climate.

How these global changes play out locally varies by region, and Lane has focused on the Northeast in her work, so she offers that as an example. She’s quick to qualify her comments. The climate models for the Northeast have enough variation that matching cause and effect when it comes to fire is imperfect, she said.

However, one of the 12 key messages from the National Climate Assessment is that heavy downpours are increasing nationwide, but especially in the Midwest and Northeast.

It’s an easy assumption that these downpours would reduce wildland fire risks, but, Lane said, “The details matter.” There are more big storms and fewer little showers in between. That means that some parts of the country, such as the Northeast, are swinging between droughts and deluges. Those drought periods increase the likelihood of fire.

Probably the most well-known aspect of global climate change is higher temperatures. Warmer springs in the Northeast mean that the snow melts sooner, but leaves appear on the trees earlier. Since one of the Northeast’s fire seasons is in the spring between snow melt and leaf out, exactly how those two effects interact is yet to be seen, said Lane.

But in at least one state in the Northeast, Vermont, the spring fire season seems to be increasing in length as the snow melts much earlier than it did decades ago, while the leaves emerge only a little bit earlier.

The second big change influencing fire risk is development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), the place where developed property, like suburban housing developments or a hunting lodge, meets a forested landscape. Between 1990 and 2008, 60 percent of the new homes in the United States were built in the WUI, according to information from an International Code Council report, The Blue Ribbon Panel Report on the Wildland Urban Interface Fire. There are 46 million homes in the WUI, meaning that 40 percent of the single-family homes in the United States are found there.

The report also said that the remaining undeveloped land in the WUI is being built on at a rate of 4,300 acres per day, or about 2 million acres per year. Every region of the country has thousands of communities in the WUI and therefore are at risk in wildland fires, the report said.

RESTORE AND MAINTAIN LANDSCAPES

How can communities that haven’t traditionally faced wildland fire protect themselves? The same resources and strategies that are used in fire-prone parts of the country can be used anywhere to prepare for wildland fires and reduce their damage, said Erik Litzenberg, chief of the Santa Fe, N.M., Fire Department and chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Wildland Fire Policy Committee. The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy outlines three steps for this: “restore and maintain landscapes, fire-adapted communities and response to fire.” Litzenberg just calls it “the Cohesive Strategy.”

The “landscape” in the Cohesive Strategy is the natural landscape in and around a community, whether that is forest, grassland or something else. The goal is to restore landscapes so that they burn with the frequency and intensity that the ecosystem is adapted to. These less intense fires are easier to control.

Restoring a natural landscape may mean removing non-native species and restoring native plants. Most typically, it means removing decades of fallen leaves and limbs that quick fire suppression has allowed to build up to unnatural levels. The most natural way to do this is through prescribed fire, which is a deliberately set and carefully controlled burn conducted by people who receive certification after extensive training.

“For years, it was a big no-no to put fire on the ground,” said Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Massachusetts got serious about doing prescribed burns in state forests for fuel management in 2009, he said. Still, local communities don’t always welcome prescribed fire nearby, with smoke being a major complaint that Celino works hard to prevent.

Thomas Rullo, fire chief of the Mashpee, Mass., Fire and Rescue Department, said there was no conversion moment. Before returning to Massachusetts, he was a firefighter in a fire-prone region of Florida. There, prescribed fire and fire-adapted communities were everyday tools. He brought that mindset home with him.

Rullo said the prescribed burns have had an unintended benefit. Mashpee firefighters get wildland fire training from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (in other states, the forest department provides this training), but he’s noticed they learn best when they accompany the state prescribed fire team on a burn. “They get to see how the fire behaves firsthand.”

Firewise, a program of the National Fire Protection Association, creates the fire-adapted communities that are the second of the three principles described in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

“Firewise is one of the best blessings this small town has had,” said Ophelia Mitchell, mayor of Ethel, Miss., population 500. Mississippi may conjure up swampy images of bayous and trees dripping with moss, but Mitchell’s husband, George, served on the town’s volunteer fire department for decades, so she knew how frequently the department was called out for wildland fires. “I’ve even driven the fire truck once or twice,” she said.

Mitchell enrolled her community in Firewise as soon as she heard about it.

“Firewise is active in 42 states,” said Cathy Prudhomme, the Firewise USA program manager. “There is a liaison in each state’s forestry department.” Several states have similar programs, and Canada has FireSmart.

While Firewise is directed at community leaders and individual residents, the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Ready, Set, Go! program approaches fire-adapted communities from a fire department’s perspective. The two programs work together, with Firewise filling the community engagement role within Ready, Set, Go!

RECOVERY

The Cohesive Strategy doesn’t have a recovery step, but the plans made for a community’s recovery after a wildland fire and the steps it takes during recovery close the loop on wildland fire planning.

“All disasters start and end at the local level,” said Paul Hannemann, incident response department head for the Texas A&M Forest Service. “After you get the wet stuff on the red stuff, it’s a business operation.” The Incident Command System functions in place during the fire can roll over into the recovery, he said, with finance and administration being particularly important.

While a community may be relieved when a wildland fire is out, a high risk of erosion (think mudslides and reservoirs filled with mud and ash) and flooding will follow, Hannemann said. Otherwise, recovering from a wildland fire is much like recovering from any other natural disaster.

Houses and developments that are rebuilt to prevent wildland fires from spreading to structures, with water access and evacuation routes, will reduce the effect of the next wildland fire on the community.

Since planning ahead prevents tragedies, the aftermath of a wildland fire is the best opportunity to introduce a prevention strategy. “The common denominator among the communities who address their wildland fire risk seems to be that they’ve seen it firsthand,” Litzenberg said. But with planning and preparation, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.