Could West Coast-Sized Forest Fires Hit NH Forests?

Could West Coast-Sized Forest Fires Hit NH Forests?

 4 December 2007

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USA — The fires earlier this fall in Malibu have died, but the pictures are still with us.

Red-orange flames more than 30 feet high.

Aircraft and firefighters struggling as thousands of acres of forests and hundreds of homes burned

That story is common out West.

But even though the North Country doesn’t suffer such disasters, local officials do plan for them.

NHPR Correspondent Chris Jensen has the story.


Jefferson resident David Govatski is tromping through the White Mountain National Forest near Zealand Road.

Govatski worked with the US Forest Service as a fire management officer for 30 years and fought forest fires around the country.

We are looking for proof of a voracious fire that swept through here in 1888.

It burned 12,000 acres.

More than a century later, beneath some leaves, not far into the earth, the fire’s mark is not hard to find.

Govatski – “This is all charcoal down here.”
Jensen – “All this heavy black stuff?”
Govatski – “Yeah, it is just a real thick layer in this area. So, it burned pretty hot here.”

That fire – and an encore in 1903 – resulted from logging practices which left thousands of branches and scrap wood on the ground to dry.

“It was dry kindling just waiting for a match.”

Twelve thousand acres is hard to imagine.

In comparison, the biggest fire the region has had recently burned only 140 acres near Bartlett three years ago.

Why haven’t we had any huge fires?

Part of the reason is rain.

“The big difference is the weather. It is kind of the bottom line. The weather, the climate influences the vegetation. That is very different than Southern California.”

That’s Tom Brady.

He is the fire staff officer for the White Mountain National Forest.

Brady says it has been a long time since The North Country had that terrible, magic combination that creates a huge fire.

Those conditions include a long drought, high winds, and a source of ignition.

That source could be man-made or natural, like lightening.

Tom Brady: “The perfect storm conditions don’t always come together as frequently as in the West.”

But they can.

“In 1947 those conditions came together and over 220,000 acres burned in Maine and New Hampshire.”

But now such devastating fires are found only in the region’s history books.

“We have small fires here. A 10-acre fire here is a good-sized fire.”

That’s Capt. John Accardi of the state’s Division of Forests and Lands.

So far this year the state has had 464 fires burning about 212 acres.

That is not much acreage but nobody can rule out the possibility of a bigger one.

Capt. Accardi remembers fighting a fire in Minnesota where the forest and climate reminded him of The North Country.

“The one I was on was over 30,000 acres. It burned across enormous lakes. Lakes bigger than Winnipesaukee. It would just skip right across these lakes like nothing. That was really eye-opening to me. You think, maybe it could happen here.”

A long drought in the North Country would make people anxious.

But Govatski points to another reason for concern.
Near Bretton Woods is a large stand of dead Balsams killed by an invasive species, the Woolly Adelgid.

“What is created here is acre after acre of dead forest. You could get a very large fire going here.”

The national Forest Service’s Brady won’t rule out a huge fire.

But he says the White Mountain National Forest is more likely to suffer from wind, ice or flooding.

Nevertheless, local, state, and federal firefighters plan to cooperate should the unthinkable occur.

Maine, Vermont and Canada would likely send help too.

These days, firefighters have technology that wasn’t around 60 or 100 years ago that makes them more effective.

And fires are reported more quickly due to cell-phone toting tourists.

But merely the idea of the North Country having a major, western style fire is still plenty scary.

When Capt. Accardi turns on the television and sees those flames in California or the Rockies it gives him pause.

“Well, it is overwhelming, you know. My first thought is ‘Geez, what if we did get that here.”

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