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As Drought Conditions Persist, Fire Officials Warn Of Lingering Fire Danger

The Killington Fire ignited in mid-May and, despite constant firefighting efforts, continued to burn for well over a week. Ongoing dry conditions and pockets of moderate drought across Vermont means the fire danger could linger for weeks to come.

A wildfire near Killington burning since mid-May was finally declared "out" just this week.

The blaze persisted due to dry regional conditions stretching back more than a year. Those same conditions sparked a wildland fire that burned nearly 1,000 acres in northwest Massachusetts, the biggest blaze in that state in more than two decades. State fire officials say if such conditions persist, so too will the danger of fires.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Lars Lund, the state forest fire supervisor for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, about conditions heading into the spring fire season and what ongoing dry conditions mean in the weeks and months ahead. Their conversation as been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: We are coming off a very dry year last year, and some parts of the Upper Valley had wells that ran dry, and farmers struggled, too, from a lot of reduced rainfall. What did conditions look like going into this spring fire season?

Lars Lund: We had drought conditions that began in May of 2020, and persisted throughout the remainder of the calendar year. And there were some portions of the state that had up to a 20-inch departure from normal precipitation, a 20-inch deficit. So, parts of the Northeast Kingdom, and central and southern Green Mountains, experienced a significant departure from normal precipitation.

I mentioned those two big fires, the one here in Vermont, and that one in western Massachusetts. How bad were these blazes?

They were difficult to suppress. I can speak personally for the Killington fire, because I was on that for four days, picking up hose and equipment this past Tuesday. But very difficult terrain. The fire made some pretty significant uphill runs... burning through surface fuel, and then it got down into ground fuels. And those are very difficult to suppress. The fire can sustain itself for days on end, just smoldering in the ground.

Were you worried at all that it could keep on going? I mean, it just got under control, as we said, just this week.

Yeah. The fire started Saturday, May 15, and a very strong effort by local fire departments working that fire on Saturday night, and then all through the day on Sunday. We thought we had it contained. It smoldered for a couple days, and then winds picked up on the Wednesday [May 19], and the fire jumped one of the containment lines, and it was burning again, freely. [Killington fire officials determined the fire was extinguished on Sunday, May 23.]

Is it true that these kinds of fires, that the spring fire season, at least, typically comes to an end by May, and do you expect that to be true this year?

Yeah. Once green-up is complete — you know, all the trees fully leaf out, the hardwood trees, all the grass grows, the green grass overtakes the dead grass that you find typically after the snow melts — that is typically when our spring fire season ends. And most of the fires are fairly short duration. They'll burn through grass, like brush, run into some type of barrier, or the fire departments will put it out, and it's over within a day. So, this Killington fire is a little bit unusual.

Credit Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, Courtesy
The May 2021 Killington fire burned for more than a week after the flames burned through fuels, the duff of dried leaves and needles, and eventually into the ground and soil that were all abnormally dry due to a year-long dry spell.

Will these dry conditions extend the threat of fire? What can we expect in the weeks and months ahead?

Yes, the potential for fires to get into the dry ground fuels, either from people camping, having campfires, or debris burning that gets away from folks, and then the fire starts to burn in those ground fuels.

If drought conditions persist, that fire danger will also persist.

What do we really need to reduce the risk of these kinds of fires? Is it a kind of sustained, soaking rain around the region that we need? 

Yeah, that's the best recipe for ending fire danger, is those long, multi-day, slow-soaking rain events. The the rain that we had Wednesday was a short duration, fairly intense. A lot of it ends up just running off, as opposed to soaking into the ground fuels.

I'm wondering if you have any advice or words of caution for folks about making sure that they don't inadvertently start the next big wildfire?

Campfires need to be fully extinguished. So, if you start a campfire out in the backcountry, before you leave that fire, you need to apply some water to it. Find a stick out there in the woods and mix and stir that water in. 

The last thing you need to do before you leave is actually take the back of your hand and run it around, in where that fire had been burning. The back of your hand is especially sensitive to heat, and will pick up any residual heat. If you find any, more water, more mixing and stirring. And don't leave the site until you've made sure that that fire is out cold.

And all open burning in the absence of snow requires a burn permit from your town forest fire warden. So, before you do any burning in your backyard for debris removal, you'll need to call your town forest fire warden for a permit. And if it's conditions that will make a controlled fire in somebody's backyard difficult to maintain, or if the fire warden is concerned about fire danger, [the warden] will hold off on issuing burn permits until the conditions are better for a controlled fire.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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