On the morning of July 26th, I woke up for my normal morning commute. This morning seemed different however, the air felt heavy and as my partner and I drove into work that morning we noticed a thick fog covered the road. We would find out later that this wasn’t fog at all, but actually wildfire smoke that had made it’s way from western Oregon to the East Coast.
This made us think, why are we seeing these massive wildfires? What is causing them? And what can we do about it? So we called our friend Michael Benson to find out the truth about wildfires. He shared with us the many complexities and nuances that come with wildfires, why they are so misunderstood, and why New Hampshire is still in danger.
Benson, who works for the White Mountain National Forest, is a collateral, or militia, firefighter. This means that although he primarily works in recreation and trails, he is pulled out of his normal role to provide services to the fire fighting efforts out West or where he is most needed when preparedness levels go up. Preparedness levels are on a scale from 1-5, and nationally, we have been at a preparedness level of 5 for sixty-three days.
So, are forest fires actually getting worse?
Benson told us that yes, it is getting worse, and there are a number of factors as to why. He says:
Climate change is a huge driver… it’s causing draught, it’s causing water shortages, it’s causing trees to die which is causing more availability of fuels… and it’s also driving infestation from different invasive beetles which is causing a lot of kill out West…all of those different factors kind of play a role…Climate change is causing more extremes on both ends. So we’re getting either warmer summers or colder winters or some combination of dryer or wetter, and if we get the right conditions it can cause a lot of damage.”
In addition to climate change, human impact plays a significant role as well.
“A lot of these areas that are burning over are fire prone areas. So, there are places that have always had wildfires over the years, and over the decades, and the centuries. But they’re getting a lot more attention now because there’s more and more people that are moving into these areas and they’re becoming residential. Where they used to just be wilderness, now they’re becoming suburban land. They’re becoming developed…there’s more impact when this happens, it’s not just burning down the forest, they’re burning down peoples homes.”
And although 10% of wildfires are started naturally by lightning or lava, the other 90% are started by us! As of today, 44,750 wildfires have burned 5,609,865 acres in the U.S. (that’s 4x bigger than the Grand Canyon). With people being the main cause of almost 39,000 of them. The major human causes are unattended or improperly extinguished campfires, sparks or heat transfers from equipment like chainsaws or recreational vehicles, and every once in a while it’s from a gender reveal party. These types of careless or unaware accidents account for an overwhelming majority of the wildfires in the U.S.
So, are wildfire seasons getting longer?
Yes, fire season is in fact, getting longer,
“A lot of that has been driven by climate change. And a lot of that is driven by a lack of resources to do forest management activities. Because that’s fairly expensive, it’s fairly labor intensive, and the resources just aren’t where they need to be… there just isn’t enough to go around. Because of the amount of fires, where they’re happening, how many that are happening, and how often they’re happening now. And the seasons are getting longer and longer, which is stretching the resources farther and farther so you’re never able to catch up.”
Why NH should care
“People just don’t know about it because it’s not really impacting our lives. Our homes are not threatened by fire every summer, we’re not seeing these walls of flames burning through towns. It just doesn’t happen here, but it can.”
And it has,
“On the forest that I work on, about 100 years ago after a significant amount of logging activity… there was 100,000 acre fire on the forest, in New Hampshire. One of the biggest fires in New England that has ever happened. And it happened right in the Lincoln area where it’s super populated now. And that can happen again. It’s about 100 year event and we’re over that 100 year threshold now. So in theory, it could happen at any point.”
Benson warned us that although we don’t see large scale fires in NH today,
“NH does in particular have a lot of areas that are fire prone areas, they do benefit from fire or they typically would have been burned in past history. So there is a lot of areas that if they catch on fire would burn really well…we do have the conditions when they’re favorable, we could have a large scale event.”
Are all wildfires bad?
“There is a lot of fire that is very beneficial for the native landscape that they’re burning in. There’s a reason that forested areas catch on fire. It’s not always a bad thing, the problem is the urban interfaces, which is when people move into these fire prone areas. But typically speaking there’s a lot of areas around this country, even in NH, that benefit heavily from fire…it creates regeneration of species, it keeps habitat available for certain types of wildlife, it removes dead and downed trees from the landscape to elevate that problem for then nutrients to be able to grow, it provides soil regeneration by putting new nutrients into the soil to regenerate those things. Some trees, like Red Pine which we have in NH, those benefit from fire. It helps their cones open up which spread the seeds and helps those trees continue to produce in those areas. There’s a whole laundry list of benefits to the natural landscape.”
So, the problem isn’t forest fires, the problem is that the fires are getting too big, the seasons are getting too long, and the resources are stretched too thin.
What can we do to help?
“Anything that they’re talking about for mitigation purposes in terms of fire management in the Western US are things that we can do here.”
Benson has helped us compile a list!
1. You’ve already started by clicking on this blog post!
Benson told us that education and awareness are the first step towards taking action on forest fire prevention.
2. Reducing our carbon footprint.
Climate change is a huge factor in why forest fires are so out of control right now. Global temperature rise causes heat waves and draught which dry up forests and prevent natural weather patterns.
3. Reducing water consumption.
Limit showers, sprinklers, etc. When streams are dried up, fire fighters use town reservoirs to pump water, but when water is overused, these reservoirs dry up too.
4. Fire proofing your home.
Removing brush from your home and cleaning gutters and roofs helps to prevent embers from catching. Trim dead trees, and move mulch away from your foundation. 60% – 90% of homes are lost in wildfires due to embers brought downwind. Clearing your personal space of hazards can avoid this potential threat.
5. Make sure campfires are fully extinguished and be fire safe when enjoying outdoor activities.
6. Donate to California Wildfire Relief or the Wildlife Conservation Society
Due to climate change, the future is uncertain. Michael Benson reminds us that:
“It could be, at some point, in your backyard.”