What Does the Future Hold for Maine and Wildfire?

Drought, climate change, and Western megafires have many Mainers wondering.

What Does the Future Hold for Maine and Wildfire?
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By Philip Kiefer
From our July 2021 issue

During the last couple of summers, as newsmaking megafires burned across the West, Mainers started asking Tom Doak, director of the nonprofit Maine Woodland Owners organization, if they should prepare for the same. “I hear it from landowners, I hear it from the public,” Doak says. “There’s often a misconception that this could happen here but for the grace of god doesn’t.”

You could forgive a person for being anxious. Almost 90 percent of Maine is forested, and droughts have set the stage for two years of hyperactive fire seasons. Some 1,150 wildfires burned in Maine in 2020, the second-highest annual total since 1900. During the two decades prior, the median average was 522 wildfires annually. This year is already closing in on 500 fires, according to the Maine Forest Service’s continuing tally.

“We’re starting out with the big stuff dry,” says Patty Cormier, director of the Maine Forest Service, which oversees wildland firefighting. “The water table is down. . . . So certainly, things are pointing to possibly another record-breaking year. We hope not.”

But huge, Western-style firestorms? Not likely.

“I don’t see it happening,” says Erin Lane, a fire ecologist with the US Forest Service and coordinator of the USDA Northeast Climate Hub. These days, the average fire in Maine burns less than an acre. “We’re on completely different scales,” Lane says. Even in its driest years, Maine tends to be much more humid than, say, the Sierras. And unlike needles on the huge stands of flammable pines out West, the deciduous leaves of maple, oak, and birch carry a lot of moisture during the summer, which tamps down crown fires.

But with climate change a wild card, surprises may be in store, and experts say it’s reasonable to imagine fires becoming more common, if not catastrophic.

An aerial photo from the Baxter State Park archives shows smoke from the 1977 wildfires that burned more than 3,000 acres in and around the park.

Lieutenant Joseph Mints, special operations supervisor for the Maine Forest Service, attributes this year’s busy fire season to an early spring. “We had less snow cover this year than most folks can remember. Fire season started earlier,” Mints says. But spring fires in Maine tend not to scorch entire landscapes, because such fires require a lot of ingredients. “Think of building a campfire,” Mints says. “You’ve got to have paper, the small light things that are fine fuels. Then you have to have kindling, the midrange fuels. And then, obviously, your big logs.”

Historically, Maine has had three fire seasons, each adding a different layer to the fuel load. The first comes after the spring melt but before plants put on buds and leaves, which is usually in June. Those spring brush fires burn through dead grass and last year’s leftover leaf litter. They move fast through open fields but aren’t intense enough to ignite forests, which are generally still soaked from winter snowfall.

“Then,” Mints says, “as you start to green up in June, humidity has come up, and those large, heavy fuels still have enough residual moisture from over the winter. The light fuels are green and flush with moisture content, so nothing’s available to burn.”

Next, as summer goes on, the heavier stuff starts drying out, beginning with downed branches and smaller trees: the kindling. Finally, in the fall, after the first frost, the grass and leaves are dead and the heavy fuel is dried out from summer. That’s when Maine’s landscape-altering fires tend to occur — for example, the ones that raged across 200,000 acres in October 1947, burning a third of southern Maine and much of Mount Desert Island.

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Now, the warming climate appears to be rearranging those seasons. “We’re going to get significantly more precipitation in the Northeast,” Lane predicts, “but it’s mostly happening in bigger storms. So what about the time in between storms?” One study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests that moisture will evaporate so quickly in the hotter air that the forest floor will become drier on average. What’s more, occasional downpours don’t soak into heavy fuels like a long, soft drizzle — a big storm will wet twigs, but after a few days without rain, that kindling has dried, and fire danger rises again.

The changes will be uneven across the state and season, Lane says. The coast will be wetter, but the western mountains are likely to be drier, and most of the new precipitation will come in the winter and spring. That could tamp down spring fire seasons, she says. But warm winters mean that less of that precipitation will fall as snow, and the spring melt will come earlier. Without an insulating snowpack, heavy fuels will dry out. Maine’s larger logs started out drier than usual this spring, Cormier says, thanks to increased exposure to air and sun during a snow-poor winter.

On the whole, it seems likely that small fires will become more common and possible that trees will burn more readily. That doesn’t mean, however, that whole forests will catch. Fires like Maine saw in ’47 are the product of what fire ecologist William Patterson, a professor emeritus at UMass Amherst, calls a “black swan” event. The forest was bone dry after a summer-long drought. Then, a windstorm rolled in, with 40-mile-per-hour winds stoking small fires, sweeping them across whole towns in a matter of hours. Many of those towns had no formal firefighting apparatuses, just small groups of volunteers using jury-rigged equipment to protect homes.

“It’s like the perfect storm,” Patterson says. “Many things that are rare have to come together simultaneously.”

But Patterson also points to the potential fallout from pests and diseases: The hemlock wooly adelgid is moving north. The budworm threatens spruces. The emerald ash borer could kill off the state’s ash trees. Asian longhorn beetles go after maples. Gypsy moths go after oaks. Pine beetles may eventually come Maine’s way as winters warm. Layers of charcoal and pollen sampled on Mount Desert Island, Patterson says, suggest that wildfire historically goes hand-in-hand with widespread tree die-offs. A drought on the heels of a tree massacre adding all at once to fuel loads is its own kind of perfect storm.

“There may be more black swans,” Patterson says.

What is perhaps surprising is that Maine used to have much more wildfire. On average, 684 acres burned in Maine each year between 1980 and 2014. Last year was the first time in 15 years that more than 1,000 acres burned. But those numbers are negligible compared to a century or more ago. Maine saw several years with 100,000-acres of wildfires in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Maine’s 1947 fires, devastating as they were, pale in comparison to an 1825 blaze that covered more than 800,000 acres. Even into the ’60s, it wasn’t uncommon to have 10,000-acre years.

Human activity helped bring about those substantial fire years, and human forest management and fire suppression are the reasons they’re nearly unheard of today. As Patterson puts it, “Fire has disappeared on the landscape.”

An Associated Press photo shows smoke from the 1947 wildfires on MDI rising over a fire break between Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor.

The story of land management and fire in Maine begins with its Native peoples. As James Francis, historian and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, described in a 2008 paper, plenty of Penobscot place names allude to landscapes shaped by fire: Pemskudek, the extensive burned place; Skudenteguk, the burned river. An engraving from the 1600s shows Native people burning and cultivating land around Mount Desert Island. Thoreau, Francis writes, encountered a place near Millinocket Lake that he called a “Burnt Land, where fire had raged formerly.”

“Fire has historically got a bad rap,” Francis told me. “We see wildfires, and we’re quick to blame it on climate change. It’s always framed as something that is bad.” But the Penobscot word for field, he points out, includes the word for fire, suggesting an intimate relationship between burning and food.

In southern Maine and New Hampshire, other nations in the Wabanaki Confederacy burned hardwood forests twice a year to maintain open woodlands and food for game animals. In Maine’s north woods, Francis’s research suggests, the Penobscot likely used fire intensively on fields and marshes and somewhat less frequently on the conifer forest itself.

After colonists forced tribes off much of that territory, land use — particularly the massive waste left by the timber industry — continued to dictate fire frequency and severity. As fire historian Stephen Pyne writes in his 2019 book The Northeast: A Fire Survey, “Extensive land clearing, innumerable fires set to clear away the extensive slashings, a ‘violent gale’ that drove flames and embers before it — this was the template for more than a century of conflagrations that rolled westward with settlement.”

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Most of the state’s modern fire-management approach stems from the 1947 fire. Fire towers popped up, while volunteer fire departments proliferated and were integrated into a better-funded, more powerful Maine Forestry District (which would later merge with the Maine Forest Service). Though there have been some big fires since — notably, a 1977 fire in Baxter State Park that burned more than 3,000 acres — the trend in Maine has been towards fires that are detected quickly and put out before they can spread. More roads crisscross the north woods now, and the Forest Service can drop firefighters into the backcountry to clear helipads and cut firebreaks. If 1977’s fire conditions were repeated in Baxter today, Maine Forest Service chief ranger Bill Hamilton says, a 3,000-acre blaze “would never develop.”

Will Maine have to repay a fire debt for decades of suppression? Most experts seem to think not. Fuel loads aren’t accumulating, as in drier environments, to one day sustain an inferno, explains the USFS’s Lane. “Our fuel rots first,” she says, “because of our higher moisture and decomposition rates.”

The biggest potential disruption to this state of affairs isn’t climate change — it’s an aging populace. “For us, the thing that’s most problematic is the diminishing amount of available firefighters,” Hamilton says. “Many small volunteer fire departments in Maine are struggling with staffing, and we rely heavily on those departments.”

Meanwhile, controlled burns have made a comeback over the last decade. For the most part, they’re not being set in an effort to replicate some natural cycle of fire — Maine hasn’t experienced a fire regime unaffected by humans since before the last glaciation. Instead, they’re used by public agencies and nonprofits to achieve management goals, like conserving habitat for species that need open space. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands burns patches of grassland on behalf of woodcocks and other birds. The Nature Conservancy burns the Waterboro Barrens Preserve, in York County, for similar reasons. In the ’90s, the Penobscot Nation was interested in burning a boggy hunting area on tribal lands known as “the meadow,” though those plans haven’t come to fruition. “Everybody knows they used to burn the meadow,” says John Banks, director of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. Burns kept the alders and other wetland trees back, he says, and the land is beginning to fill back in.

Lane, like many other fire ecologists, applauds the increasing embrace of these prescribed fires. “Fire in Maine is geographically small but ecologically significant,” she says. “If we have only 142 acres that burn in a year because we’re so good at suppression, then we aren’t going to have those fire-adapted ecosystems.”

Nancy Sferra, director of land management for the Nature Conservancy in Maine, thinks those burns probably ease the fire risk on nearby communities. “If you look at where the greatest fire risks are, it’s in these habitats that would benefit ecologically from burning anyway,” she says. The pine and blueberry barrens could otherwise nurse fires that jump over to homes.

Hamilton remembers when this was a more widespread practice in Maine. “When I was a kid,” he says, “everyone would burn agricultural fields for a number of reasons, one of which was to protect structures.”

Prescribed fire, however, is expensive. A Nature Conservancy burning crew consists of between 12 and 20 people. Some need specialized training, to accurately gauge wind conditions and ensure safety. “What we don’t want to do is smoke out people, roads, hospitals, things like that,” Sferra says. If the fire burns deeply into organic soil, the burn might go on for days.

Because Maine has vastly more privately owned woodlands than public, any prescribed fire risks liability claims if it jumps onto someone else’s property. There’s also the question of public trust. “Do [nearby landowners] trust the values behind the agency that’s carrying out the prescribed burns?” asks Casey Olechnowicz, a UMaine graduate student who studies the relationship between communities and natural resources. “That’s the biggest contention point that’s happened in a lot of areas that have had resistance to active fire management.”

In southern Maine, though, prescribed burns could be helped along by a nascent regional partnership. The Nature Conservancy, along with other fire users, is developing a prescribed-fire council that would let partners tap one another’s resources and plan region-wide campaigns. “I’m hoping that we can see more people get trained to do wildfire control,” Sferra says. “If we can get more prescribed fire on the ground to minimize the potential for devastating wildfire, I think that’s both a win in terms of protecting property and a win ecologically.”


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Down East magazine, June 2021