What a record fire season signals about the future of a wet state
In mid-May, Chris Easton, an assistant fire chief in the town of Dixmont, Maine, was standing in his yard when he noticed a huge column of smoke on the other side of town. Figuring that he’d go make sure a neighbor wasn’t burning a brush pile before alerting the department, he headed over to scope out the fire.
Then, his pager began going off, and it was clear that the fire was not under control. A neighbor with an ATV gave him a lift to the source of the smoke, near an open patch of power lines. “As I got there,” said Easton, “this column of black smoke exploded into flame.” By the time backup arrived, 15 minutes later, the fire had spread to four acres. The torched trees were unlike any fire Easton had seen in Maine. “Generally, the trees aren’t that dry,” he said. “But this was kind of the perfect spot for it to happen. It was low-growth fir and spruce, with taller trees above, and the fire just laddered. The only time I’d seen that was out West.”
This year, tales of massive wildfires in the western United States have dominated the news. But Maine has also had a record-breaking fire season. Over 900 fires have burned across the state. An average year sees more like 600. Like the fires out West, there are many factors behind Maine’s recent increase, and climate scientists say that it’s unclear what role climate might play in the region’s fire seasons. But the firefighters responsible for Maine’s wildlands wonder if this year is a preview of those to come.
Unusual weather, uncertain causes
The underlying cause of Maine’s fires is a prolonged drought, in place of the state’s usual summer rain. That’s the result of global weather patterns, according to Sean Birkel, a professor of climatology at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. Normally, weather systems blow through Maine on their way east, but this summer, a high-pressure zone called a blocking pattern got stuck over Greenland, clogging up the jet stream.
And that could be a sign of what’s to come. “It appears that the warming climate is making the jet stream slow down,” said Birkel. “But there’s an ongoing scientific debate as to why and how these blocking events are becoming more frequent.”
Overall, Birkel added, Maine’s climate is getting wetter, including the state’s summers. But the more intense storms fueled by climate disruption can mean that even while overall rainfall increases, drought still becomes more frequent. In the same way that Maine is seeing more heat waves and winter storms, a summer that’s wetter on average might actually look like a series of deluges and droughts.
That would mean greater fire risk throughout the summer, said Patty Cormier, the director of the Maine Forest Service. Prolonged drizzle is much more effective at dampening fire danger—and refilling streams and groundwater—than a heavy storm followed by a drought, which can turn all the greenery fed by that rainfall into tinder.
That’s what happened in Maine this summer: After a late spring drought sparked hundreds of fires, a patch of wet weather in mid-summer temporarily reduced the danger. Then a late-summer dry spell put the entire state in moderate to extreme drought conditions for the first time in 18 years, and the fire season came back. Wells began to run dry in June, and according to the Maine Monitor, wildland fire crews have faced challenges even finding water to fill engines.
Most of Maine’s wildfires are small, said Cormier. But they’re hard to fight and prone to flaring up unexpectedly. She calls them “the sneaky monster.”
“Fire goes down into the root systems … and you’re fighting a wildfire underneath the ground. They can burn for a long time without us noticing that they’re there.” And massive fires aren’t unheard of—in October 1947, a series of blazes consumed more than 200,000 acres across the state, leading to huge investments in wildfire fighting capacity.
This year’s increased fire risk came at a particularly unlucky moment, as the pandemic brought more visitors to campsites in the Maine woods and sent homeowners into their backyards on the wildland edge, where their thoughts inevitably turned to landscaping. This spring, the Maine Forest Service issued twice as many burn permits as it had the previous spring. “People were home looking at their yards saying, ‘I really need to clean this up,’ and that led to escaped fires,” Cormier said. Ninety-five percent of the fires this year were caused by humans, she said. “We’ve seen crazy ones. Common sense would tell you not to have a burn pile beside your barn.”
Those home-grown fires were accompanied by an increase in escaped campfires, which Cormier attributed to more “first-timers” out in the woods during the pandemic who don’t know how much water they have to use to put out a campfire. During drought conditions, she said, it only takes one ember. “Then it’s windy, no one notices for a while, and it builds up into a fire.”
The X factor
Another challenge is that most of Maine’s fire departments are staffed by volunteers and are struggling to find new recruits. Those shortages put pressure on the state’s wildland firefighting capacity, according to Cormier. Terry Bell, fire chief in Farmington, a college town in central Maine, is the son and grandson of volunteer firefighters. As a kid, he would listen for the public fire alarms that would alert the volunteer force, and when he heard them, he would jump on his bike and race the department to the scene of the fire. He joined the force in the 1970s and was hired as its first full-time employee in 2002.
“When I got on, there were 40 of us—you basically had to be voted on. There was a waiting list,” he said. Now, there are between 20 and 25 firefighters, including the seven full-timers. (“Volunteer” is a slightly misleading term—they do get paid, just on a per-call basis.) Bell estimates the average age in his department as around 50. Many of its volunteers are already over 65. There’s one who’s 83.
“You can call any fire department in the state of Maine, I guarantee you, and they would have similar numbers,” Bell said. That’s a problem, because Farmington and the small towns that surround it rely on each other for extra numbers when fighting large fires.
Bell said that departments coordinate recruitment efforts, usually by courting high school and college students who can work in supporting roles. But training takes months, and firefighters need to be on call regularly to develop a working relationship with the crew.
Bell blames the changing nature of work in Maine. “A lot of people can’t leave their place of work now,” he said. “Years ago, people used to be able to leave the oil company, or they were self-employed. My grandfather was a plumber.” Many of the regulars on his crew are self-employed or work for small companies that are willing to work around firefighting schedules.
Chris Easton has noticed the same thing in Dixmont. He works full-time as a biology professor at Eastern Maine Community College and was able to stay on call this spring because he’s working from home during the pandemic. But many other members of his department now work at jobs where it’s harder to drop everything and go out on a call. Health care and education have replaced agriculture and industry as the major employers in rural counties.
“Dixmont has been the way Dixmont is for about 100 years,” said Easton. “There’s about a thousand people in town, and that’s the way it’s been. But when most of the peoples’ livelihood was farming, there were always 20 or 30 people in town.” Now that people have to drive out of town to get to work, there’s often not enough firefighters in town when the fire alarms go off.
So far, Cormier said that the Forest Service has been up to the challenge this summer. “We have some of the best people for firefighting in our incident command system,” she said, adding that many have expertise gained from fighting fires out west. “It’s just not knowing what’s down the pipe—with climate conditions changing and people not able to help as much. That’s what makes me nervous.”
Philip Kiefer covers science and healthcare from New Orleans. He’s written for National Geographic, Outside Magazine, Down East Magazine, and FiveThirtyEight.
This article was originally published in Sierra magazine (sierraclub.org/sierra/new-england-also-fire) on Oct 11, 2020.