Answer: Not likely. But it depends on how wet – or dry – the conditions are
By Chloe Bennett
In April, hundreds of New Jersey residents were evacuated from a fire that ripped through almost 4,000 acres. The wildfire ignited in the Pine Barrens about 50 miles from Philadelphia, closing roads in rural Manchester Township.
In June, the Adirondacks saw dark sepia skies clouded with pollution from uncontrolled wildfires in Quebec. The low-hanging smoke caused unhealthy air quality for residents and warnings from state officials to stay indoors. State Department of Environmental Conservation leaders urged New Yorkers to refrain from outdoor burning because of the high risk of forest fires.
Visitors used to the sweet scent of balsam fir instead smelled fire as the thick plume of smoke from the north raised the question: Could those wildfires happen here?
As climate change causes unpredictable weather, such wildfires and murky skies have the potential to become more severe, scientists say. But it’s unlikely devastating infernos are imminent in Adirondack forests, according to researchers familiar with the park.
Wet vs dry, hot vs cold
According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rain is expected to increase in the region. Still, accelerated snowmelt from warming temperatures could escalate droughts, which are known to contribute to fires. Projections from NOAA suggest that the Northeast will see a temperature increase of 4.5 to 10 degrees by 2080.
The impact of warmer temperatures and intensified precipitation on the region’s fire risk is uncertain. Climate predictions rely on weather pattern simulations that can change with new information. As of right now, Mark Lesser, associate professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh, said only drastic ecological changes would make the Adirondacks more at risk of wildfires. He noted that the June fires in Quebec were primarily in boreal forests and the Adirondacks are largely made up of hardwood forests. Boreal forests, found mainly in Canada, Alaska and Russia, are home to more fire-prone ecosystems with black and white spruce, jack pine, paper birch and aspen trees.
“It takes pretty unique conditions of the timing and length of drought conditions here in the Northeast to burn a northern hardwood forest. Those conditions may be becoming a little bit more prevalent due to climate change, but not to any major extent where we’re going to suddenly be seeing huge fires like there are in the West.”— Mark Lesser, associate professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh
Wildfires in the West have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in recent years, displacing residents and animals. Northeastern states are less prone to catastrophic scenarios because of the generally wet climate, Lesser said.
Adirondack trees and vegetation could act as a sitting tinderbox during a significant drought, but they could also dampen with increased precipitation.
Past and current burns
According to Justin Waskiewicz, a Paul Smith’s College professor of ecology, there are three primary determinants for wildfire severity: climate, vegetation and ignition. In short, the future of fires in the Adirondacks depends on how warming temperatures change forest ecology and the population of residents in the park.
Yet the Adirondacks are no stranger to disastrous burns. More than 100 years ago, fires in the park ignited by logging operations and dry conditions engulfed nearly 1 million acres, leading to tighter regulations and surveillance with fire towers.
As wildfires became less severe in the park, the towers became hiking attractions without fire spotters.
Although they are considered to be less severe than western fires, New York wildfires still erupt. Through mid-May this year, there were 60 wildfires that burned approximately 1,024 acres across the state, according to data from the DEC. In 2022, 160 fires burned about 1,287 acres.
Are we prepared?
The misconception that wildfires do not occur in the Northeast, can lead to major damage from a lack of preparation, said Coleman, assistant professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh. On top of risk reduction strategies like using fire-resistant building materials or organizing a neighborhood or town plan to minimize fires, communities should consider more controversial mitigation tactics.
“The thing I would really want people to understand is that good forest management is important, fire or not, in the context of climate change, and that sometimes involves cutting trees. Very often people are loath to cut trees, but it’s often the right call.”Kimberly Coleman, assistant professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh
Tree cutting on forest preserve in the Adirondacks and the Catskills is prohibited under Article 14 of the state constitution, which says the trees “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” Similarly, prescribed fires on forest preserve on any state land in the parks are prohibited. Though there are other ways to prepare for wildfires.
Becoming certified with The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise program is one way to prepare for wildfires. Currently, there are no communities registered with the association in the Adirondacks, according to public data from NFPA. The process involves completing a fire risk assessment every five years and creating a committee to develop a three-year mitigation plan. Coleman said communities near fire-dependent forests that require burns are particularly vulnerable.
The Clintonville Pine Barrens in Au Sable Forks is one such forest. The Nature Conservancy manages the pitch pine-heath barrens, though they do not perform controlled burns on the land. Kate Berdan, TNC reserve stewardship coordinator, said the organization is exploring the possibility of prescribed fires in the future because of the associated benefits.
“Fire burns the pines’ fallen needles and debris, releasing nutrients that prepare a seedbed for the regeneration of the forest and provides the heat necessary to open the cones and release seeds,” Berdan said.
Another variable that is sure to impact wildfire behavior in the Adirondacks is the changing of tree species. Warmer temperatures could lead to more flammable trees like oak and pine across many decades, Waskiewicz said. What once were fragrant evergreens would be replaced by a deciduous-dominated forest. Without knowing exactly what the park will look like in 100 years, it’s difficult for scientists to predict how wildfires will behave.
“Climate is changing, of course, but here in the Northeast and in New York in particular, it’s changing in ways that would tend to increase, but also other ways that would tend to decrease, the probability of fire,” he said.
It’s also unknown how the park’s changing winters will affect the possibility of severe wildfires. Snowmelt determines how wet or dry forest grounds are during the park’s riskiest wildfire season—March to May. With winters shorter, forest grounds could become more dehydrated, increasing fire risk.
Coleman said the North Country is experiencing more warm days during winter, reducing snowpack. “So, the overall amount of snow, I believe, hasn’t seen a substantial change, but the amount of snow on the ground has seen a change,” she said.
In wet forests like the Adirondacks, it’s easy to imagine a future scene of consistent rain, which would keep the grounds hydrated. Research from Jerry Jenkins’ 2010 book, “Climate Change and the Adirondacks,” shows that precipitation will increase in the summer and fall months, though it is unclear if it will fall consistently or in heavy bursts. Spring rainfall, a potential fire suppressant, is not expected to drastically increase. Winter will likely see less precipitation.
The timing and intensity of increased precipitation are important for scientists to consider while studying climate change, Lesser said. “That’s going to play a major role in those sorts of things.”
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