Wildfire threat looms large as Maine’s prolonged drought continues
By Sam Schipani
Maine’s prolonged drought, now more than 16 months long and impacting the whole state, has exacerbated the threat of wildfires by creating an earlier and longer wildfire season.
Maine‘s current cycle of statewide drought began in 2020. Since then, there have been more wildfires throughout the forests of the state, according to Jon Blackstone, a district forest ranger for the Maine Forest Service based in Greenville.
“I cover from the border beyond Jackman over to the Allagash water way and Baxter State Park up to Millinocket,” Blackstone said. “We probably average 500 to 600 wildfires a year, but last year, we did 1,350. This year we’re already at 534, and we’re just coming into our lightning season.”
Blackstone, who has been fighting fire since 1986 and became a forest ranger in 1992, explained that Maine has two fire seasons: a spring fire season from late March through May that happens when the snow goes away and the vegetation is dead and cured and ready to burn, and then another from July to September after summer heat has dried out vegetation further.
Usually, Maine firefighters have a respite in June during the “green-up” when rain spurs vegetation and “the leaves pop.” But that hasn’t happened in recent years.
“One thing we noticed last year and are noticing this year is that we’re not getting that green-up because it’s been so dry,” Blackstone said. “The fires roll right through the month of June, and last year we worked until November.”
There was a significant summer drought across Maine last year, and this year is looking like it will be similar, according to Nicholas Stasulis at the United States Geological Survey New England Water Science Center. Much of the state has received between five to 10 inches less of rainfall than it normally does at this point in the year, Stasulis said.
“The other factor is that this spring snowpack was below normal,” Stasulis said. “Combine all that together and as far as hydrologic conditions go, we’re behind the curve. It’s been really warm and dry this summer and streamflows and groundwater across the state are starting to become noticeably low. If we look at the sites we have in the state with 30 years or more of records, about 18 of those sites are the lowest they’ve ever been for today.”
Sarah Jamison, Senior Service Hydrologist at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Gray, said that lingering impacts from a dry 2020 plus the reduced precipitation in May 2021 — which is typically one of the wettest months — have exacerbated the dry conditions.
“June has seen well below normal rainfall apart from the hit-or-miss showers with localized higher amounts,” Jamison explained. “Essentially this rainfall has been sufficient to keep some residents from needing to water their lawns, but has done little to recharge our soil moisture and groundwater. With us moving into the warmest time of the year we are also experiencing high amounts of evaporation, which increases the stress on the system.”
Dry conditions make for drier, more combustible vegetation — basically, forest fire kindling. Dry soil conditions also serve as a hotbed for forest fires.
“When the ground gets dry, fire burns deep,” Blackstone said. “There always seems to be more smoke down in there and it takes more commitment to put those out.”
Recent rain will not help the drought, either.
“A couple thunderstorms here or there are not going to get us out of the drought,” Stasulis said. “We’re 10 inches below where we should be. Getting a 2-inch rainstorm one day isn’t going to help us. We need prolonged intermittent rainstorms over a period of time not getting a thunderstorm here or there.”
The pattern is expected to continue throughout the summer.
“The later precipitation outlooks show no strong signals favoring below, near, or above normal amounts,” Jamison said. “The outlooks do show a moderate confidence in a return to above normal temperatures that should take us through the rest of the season.”
Blackstone has worked through drought cycles before — there was a significant statewide drought in 1995, and then again from 1999 to 2002 — but this one is different.
“It seems to be a little longer term,” Blackstone said. “We’re now 16 to 17 months into this so it’s interesting.”
Will Maine become like California, though? Not exactly, said Blackstone, who also works in other states fighting wildfires, in what he describes as a sort of “mutual aid” between states for tackling this issue. He has fought fires everywhere, from Florida to California.
Though Blackstone said that “fire is the same wherever you go,” the patterns of wildfires are different out west than they are in Maine. Out west, for example, fires are more likely to start in remote wilderness areas, which are less accessible than even some of the most remote places in Maine. Lack of access prevents firefighters from catching fires in those key early moments before they take a foothold.
“It’s different here in Maine in that we have so much private land that we’re much more aggressive on getting on fires early, whereas if you go out west in the big wilderness areas it may be a while before they detect a fire,” Blackstone said. “If it’s in a really big box of publicly owned land, it’s different.”
Blackstone said that the importance of the timber industry to Maine’s economy is also an incentive to keep fires small. To illustrate, he said that the 534 fires so far this year only covered 350 acres, meaning the average fire was “little more than half an acre.”
The type of plant species in Maine forests also matters, because “the fuel is different,” as Blackstone said. In the southwest, for example, there are more dry brushy plants that make for quick kindling as opposed to Maine’s softwood timber which is slower to burn.
However, he said that doesn’t mean Mainers should be complacent about wildfires.
“With the right drying conditions — and drought certainly is part of that — those affect wildfire and it doesn’t really matter where you are,” Blackstone said. “If it gets dry enough it’s going to burn.”