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A Big “Red Flag”

The wildfire-risk warning seen this week from the National Weather Service may become more frequent in the future.

By Dusty Christensen

As temperatures soared this week, families across the region flocked outdoors for a few days in the sun. But they were greeted by what to many was probably an unfamiliar and ominous alert from the National Weather Service: a “red flag warning.”

A red flag warning signifies the combination of relative low humidity, warm temperatures and strong winds that, together, can contribute to “extreme fire behavior.” And that’s exactly what the majority of Massachusetts experienced on Tuesday and Wednesday, with “elevated fire weather conditions” continuing through Thursday as the state enters its traditional spring fire season.

“The natural elements that influence fire behavior are fuel conditions, weather and topography,” David Celino, the chief fire warden for the state’s Bureau of Forest Fire and Forestry, told The Shoestring in a phone interview Wednesday. “What we saw yesterday was when those elements align perfectly, you have the makings for almost the perfect storm.”

In a warming world in the midst of a climate crisis, regions across the world — from the Amazon to the Mediterranean to the western forests of North America —  have seen their fire seasons expand as rainfall grows scarce. In the northeastern United States, the climate is getting wetter, though New England could still be primed for more wildfires in the coming years.

Michael Rawlins, the associate director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate System Research Center, said that what is happening in the northeast is a “mixed bag” when it comes to those fire conditions Celino mentioned. The region is getting wetter, but it is also getting warmer; the period from Jan. 1 through April 12 this year has been the hottest ever recorded, he noted.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Those temperature increases are serious risks in furthering the chances of wildfires, according to a 2019 Ph.D. thesis written by UMass Amherst researcher Daniel Miller. Miller noted that climate change’s effects on extreme events like wildfires are poorly understood but that there may be an increase in the conditions that cause wildfires.

“Interestingly, these increases in regional fire risk are present regardless of increases in precipitation, indicating that future fire risk in the [Northeastern United States] is driven largely by changes in temperature as opposed to precipitation.” Miller wrote.

Rawlins noted that although the region is getting wetter overall, variability in summer precipitation has also increased. That could mean that some years will be drier than usual.

“In a summer where you have normal or slightly lower participation and then it being hotter, there could be those fire risks in those years,” he said.

What’s more, climate change is leading to precipitation falling heavier but in shorter amounts of time, leaving the chance of longer dry spells in between, Rawlins said.

Since the start of the year, the state has seen some 260 wildland fires, including more than 80 in the previous week, according to Celino. A wildland fire is defined as threatening, at minimum, one-tenth of an acre of green space. 

Celino said it’s already not uncommon for the state to see that kind of wildfire activity. And although some may forget it, he said the state has a history of wildfires, like the 1957 fire in Plymouth that he said burned some 15,000 acres in just half a day

“It can happen here in Massachusetts,” he said. “We have a history of that.”

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123. Banner image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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