You wouldn’t think it, to judge by the snow on the ground in a lot of places.
But forest fire season is here.
Across the Northeast, the months of March through May are the worst for forest fires. That’s when, for example, 85 percent of fires in Pennsylvania occur.
It’s no mystery what’s behind them either.
In Pennsylvania, 98 percent are caused by people, according to the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Fires don’t cause the damage they once did. At least in terms of acreage.
In New York, wildfires burned 464,189 acres in 1903. They claimed another 368,072 in 1908.
By comparison, the last time the state topped 4,500 acres burnt in a year was 2001.
The cost to suppress fires has grown exponentially, however.
In 1913, when 937 fires burnt 386,267 acres of Pennsylvania forestland, the cost of putting them out was $29,593.56.
In 2016, when 853 fires burnt 12,190 acres, the cost of fighting them was more than $2.7 million, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Fires gobble up budgets fast, said Dan Devlin, Pennsylvania’s state forester.
And the potential for things to get worse is there.
Pennsylvania is wetter, on average, than it once was, he said. But spring rains are more erratic, coming with more intensity but less frequency. Falls, meanwhile, are staying warmer longer, extending the fire season.
A forest fire that consumed more than 8,000 acres in Pike and Monroe counties in April 2016 revealed what’s possible.
“That was an eye opener for a lot of people,” Devlin said.
Indeed, according to Penn State University researcher, more fires are possible, perhaps even likely, across the eastern United States.
“Many people have been lulled into believing that it is just the West that is prone to devastating wildfires, but that’s not true,” said Marc Abrams, a professor of forest ecology and physiology who’s spent three decades studying the historic role of fire in Eastern forests.
Fires could be intense, too.
Abrams pointed to the forest fires in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in 2016 that burned nearly 18,000 acres as proof. That was the worst fire in the East in decades.
But it shows what’s possible given decades of fire suppression and a resulting buildup of tinder and other fuels.
“Catastrophic infernos” could be the result, he said.
“Now, Eastern forests, when faced with prolonged drought, are more vulnerable to hotter-burning, terribly destructive wildfires,” Abrams said.
Campers, backpackers, hikers, anglers, turkey hunters and others roaming the woods this spring need to be mindful of what’s possible and take care not to cause any fires.
That’s especially true in certain places.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, three factors influence wildfire behavior: fuels, weather, and topography.
“In all fuel types, the intensity and rate-of-spread of a fire will increase as slope increases, wind increases, and relative humidity decreases,” it noted.
The intensity of wildfires “increases greatly in areas of dense fine fuels, such as grasses, or dense resinous fuels, such as mountain laurel shrubs or evergreen trees.”
“In these areas, wildfires can spread rapidly and burn with amazing intensity,” it noted.
The key, of course, is to avoid setting fires at all, said Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“A mere spark by a careless person can touch off a devastating forest blaze during dry periods when conditions enable wildfires to spread quickly,” she said.
To avoid that, forestry officials offered these tips:
- Check your forest district’s wildfire danger rating before starting any outdoor fires.
- Never leave any fire unattended.
- Use water to dirt to completely extinguish any outdoor fire you create.
- Don’t throw cigarettes, other smoking materials, or matches on the ground or out of vehicle windows.
- Be mindful when operating equipment outdoors that can create heat or sparks.
- Speak up and alert authorities if you suspect someone is in danger of starting a wildfire.
That’s all important. No one wants to see uncontrolled fires burning down the woods.
“All you have to do is look at California in the past year and you go, boy, we don’t want that sort of thing in the East,” Devlin said. “But the potential is there in certain circumstances.”
Forest fire grants
With forest fire season here, funding is available to help Pennsylvania’s rural communities better guard against the threat of fires in forested, undeveloped, and unprotected areas.
Local firefighting companies can get grants for equipment and training.
Last year, the state awarded more than $592,000 to 129 volunteer fire companies. Money comes from the U.S. Forest Service.
It’s handed out more than $12 million since 1982.
Local firefighting forces in rural areas or communities with fewer than 10,000 residents qualify for the aid. Grant applications must be electronically submitted by 4 p.m. April 19.
Applicants should visit www.dcnr.pa.gov and click on “Communities,” then “Grants.”
The highest priority goes to companies buying wildfire suppression equipment and protective clothing. Money can also buy mobile or portable radios, installing dry hydrants, wildfire prevention and mitigation work, training wildfire fighters, or converting and maintaining federal excess vehicles.