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Upper Valley chiefs worry about dry conditions’ impact on fighting wildfires

  • Ascutney Fire Chief Darrin Spaulding, right, speaks to his firefighters about the structure and safety features of a Subaru after they practiced removing the roof to simulate the removal of a patient for training at Hodgdon Brothers salvage yard in Ascutney, Vt., on Tuesday, June 29, 202. Spaulding, who is also a forest fire warden for the Town of Weathersfield, said the volunteer fire department has fought one brush fire in town this year, but has served as mutual aid for several others. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Lt. Terri Gurney, left, and her husband, Capt. Derek Gurney, right, of the Ascutney Fire Department prepare their gear before going to a vehicle extrication training in Ascutney, Vt., on Tuesday, June 29, 202. The department averages between 350 and 400 calls a year. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Paramedic Nathan Wright uses hydraulic spreaders to open the passenger door of a vehicle for a simulated patient extraction at Hodgdon Brothers salvage yard in Ascutney, Vt., on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2021 9:42:16 PM
Modified: 6/29/2021 9:42:17 PM

ASCUTNEY — Fire chiefs across the Upper Valley say the moderate drought gripping the region is raising concerns about fighting ground fires, which can creep along the surface, smolder with low visibility and spread in dry terrain.

State and federal officials are taking steps to help with training and some prescribed burns, and some departments are also looking to add more equipment.

“As we speak right now, the woods are very, very dry. It’s an accident waiting to happen,” said Ascutney Fire Department Chief Darrin Spaulding, who said the rain gauge he keeps in his front yard has never been so low this early in the summer. “What scares me the most is lightning, because lightning can start a fire and two or three days later it rears its ugly head.”

Spaulding said he’d like to see more than a week of “gentle rain,” even if it would dampen summer vacations.

Canaan Fire Chief Bill Bellion said with vegetation greening up, he’s less concerned about brush fires right now. But water tables remain low, and Bellion said that when a fire gets “deep into the ground,” putting it out is “very labor-intensive.”

To help protect woods near the Appalachian Trail, specialists from the White Mountain National Forest, joined by Hanover firefighters, launched a prescribed burn on a 30-acre parcel of land near Trescott Road in Etna in April. White Mountain National Forest spokeswoman Lynn McAloon said it was a “dual-good” project” that cleared land for bobolink habitats and also consumed the fuel load that could lead to a deep-burning fire later on.

McAloon also said forecasts suggest that the region will see less of the light, steady rain Spaulding is looking for, and that as the climate changes, the Forest Service anticipates periods both of drought and of heavy rain in the Northeast.

“We are looking at fuel loads and we’re looking at moisture levels and we know that those conditions are hazardous if we do have fires,” she said.

In what she described as a “change,” the Forest Service is “looking at using fire and fire suppression on larger areas with the goal of reducing fuel loads.”

Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan recalled that his department helped put out a ground fire on Moose Mountain last summer.

“We required about 70 people to put it out,” he said. “It was by a quarry, so there was water; if it was somewhere else it would have taken days.”

“If we’re in some type of cycle or global warming, it really doesn’t matter,” McMillan said when asked whether he sees the drought as part of a long-term trend. “This is extended. We’re seeing some real differences. Whether it lasts five years or forever, I can’t tell. We’re watching.”

McMillan said he’s focusing on buying new equipment that will help his department fight fires in rural areas without drawing from the brooks and ponds that are drying up. He has invested in a slide-in water tank that firefighters can drive into the “backcountry” and several thousand feet of forestry hose.

Both Bellion and Spaulding are delaying training sessions for wildland fires because of the drought.

“We want to save the water for fires if there is any. The conditions are hard,” Spaulding said.

“Once you get fire on the ground, you have to be able control it,” Bellion added. “Right now water tables are down to levels in late July and early August.”

Lars Lund, a fire specialist with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, said he has observed an uptick in the number of surface fires and an increased potential for ground fires, which can burn up to 15 inches below the surface. A weeklong fire that consumed 32 acres in Killington, Vt., last month had both surface and ground fire activity. He said that the state is in a “long, long dry stretch,” and that lightning and campfires pose the greatest risk of starting a ground fire.

New Hampshire Fire Protection Bureau Chief Steven Sherman said via email that the Granite State has seen an increased number of ground fires both last fall and this spring.

“The ground fires are often in remote locations and getting a water supply established is usually the best way to extinguish them,” he said. “Our concern is that as the drought worsens, water sources become more scarce, which then requires more firefighters to dig the fire out and extinguish it.”

Jonathan Winter, an associate professor of geology at Dartmouth College, said climate change is certainly a factor and that “heavy rainfall events” have been increasing in the last 20 to 30 years. However, he said that does not necessarily mitigate the risk of the dry conditions that cause ground fires.

“Our models are kind of split. They predict a slightly wetter future, and there is certainly a potential for drought,” said Winter, who is most concerned about the future impact of heavy rain events.

While several chiefs were reluctant to cite climate change as a factor, Claremont Fire Chief Bryan Burr said he thinks the drought is linked to global warming.

“I think this is a trend that we will see, but I’m not scientific about it,” he said. “If you follow and believe the science, it’s absolutely a concern. Maybe not next year, but five, 10, 20 years down the road.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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