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New England and the upper Midwest could have a higher fire risk than the West this year. Here’s why

By Ella Nilsen, CNN

(CNN) — Unusually hot and dry northeastern and upper Midwest states are forecast to be wildfire hotspots this summer, while historically fire-prone Western states, including California, have a lower-than-normal predicted wildfire risk.

A summer wildfire outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center paints an atypical picture, with the highest potential for wildfires largely in the northernmost parts of the country. New England states including Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, as well as parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and nearly all of Michigan – along with areas in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest – are also facing an elevated risk of fire.

The situation is “pretty unique,” Allan Hepworth, a US Forest Service wildland fire analyst for the Northeast, told CNN.

It’s “been a long time (since) California and the Southwest have been green on the map when the Northeast has been red,” Hepworth added.

While many factors are driving the fire risk this year, the biggest is prolonged drought and lack of moisture, state and federal fire officials said. Many New England states spent much of last summer in drought, and many of the impacted states experienced lighter-than-usual snowpack this winter, followed by a lack of spring rain.

California and other Western states, meanwhile, saw an onslaught of atmospheric rivers leading to historic snowpack levels, and have enjoyed cooler than normal temperatures and continued precipitation. An atmospheric river is a plume of moisture that helps carry saturated air from the tropics to higher latitudes, delivering unrelenting rain or snow.

Human-caused climate change is fueling the increase in hotter and drier temperatures and making wildfire seasons longer and more severe across the US, according to multiple studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And while the largest and most destructive fires have historically hit the Western US, this year’s outlook shows no place in the US is immune to fire.

“Wherever there’s forests, there’s always a risk of forest fires,” Aaron Weiskittel, a professor of forest biometrics and modeling at the University of Maine, told CNN.

“I think a lot of people believe it’s a Western United States issue.”

Fire seasons fueled by drought

In April, Rhode Island’s largest wildfire since 1942 ignited, scorching hundreds of acres of forest and threatening buildings. It was one of two fires that erupted in the span of a week.

“That’s very atypical – Rhode islanders don’t deal with wildfires that last more than a day,” Tee Jay Boudreau, the deputy chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture and Forest Environment, told CNN. “These two fires that happened back-to-back. This is something that no one really has encountered on state land.”

It’s already been a busy spring fire season in many northern states. When Minnesota wildfire officials have placed mutual aid calls to wildfire agencies in Michigan and Wisconsin, they’ve found everyone busy fighting their own blazes. In Massachusetts, over 820 wildfires have already burned 1,500 acres, according to Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. While that may seem like a small area compared to Western wildfires, it’s significant in a New England state.

“The number of acres burned – that’s way above average for us,” Celino told CNN. “We think that is a carryover from the severe drought conditions we saw in 2022. We were way below average on snowpack and rainfall.”

Celino and other fire officials said years of cumulative drought, rising temperatures, and diminished winter snowpack are all contributing to the problem – stressing out forests, inviting pests, and drying out fuels that burn more easily.

“We’re having drought-filled summers,” Boudreau said. “Having it once or twice isn’t a big deal but having it four-five times… (trees) can’t fight back as well as they would otherwise.”

Insects are also making it more difficult for trees to survive wildfires. Forests in parts of Canada and the US are dealing with spruce budworm, which can defoliate and kill pitch-filled, soft-wood trees – making them even more flammable. Other insects, including tent caterpillars and bark beetles, can also chew the leaves off trees or burrow into the wood, making them more vulnerable.

Weiskittel, the University of Maine professor, said climate change and milder winters in the northeast are contributing to an influx of pests – since winters aren’t always cold enough to kill the insects, and allowing some species to move further north.

More insects “are popping up and causing quite a series of defoliation. The trees will survive three to five years of defoliation, but after that it’s a struggle,” Weiskittel said.

Experts and federal officials said what would help states vulnerable to wildfires is lots of good, soaking rain.

“With those types of fuels, they need a lot of rain, consistent rain and cooler temperatures to lower their fire potential,” said Nick Nauslar, a predictive services meteorologist at the NIFC. Unfortunately for upper Midwest and northeast states, the summer forecast is predicting more hot and potentially dry weather.

Different risks

While wildfires in the Northeast and upper Midwest certainly aren’t burning the thousands of acres that Western wildfires do, they are still a threat to homes and property because many of these states are more densely populated.

“We have a lot of people, a lot of roads, and a whole different framework for what becomes significant than you’d have out West,” said Travis Verdegan, a predictive services coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

There’s also the fact that people live closer to forests in some states that boast large rural areas. During Rhode Island’s fires this April, fire trucks were parked in front of every house that was threatened by the wildfires, in case crews needed to quickly douse a home, according to Boudreau.

“Most of New England would be what’s considered the wildland urban interface,” Dan Dillner, a forest fire supervisor for Vermont, told CNN. “Especially Vermont, where other than the town centers, practically everybody has two, five, 10 acres of land they own.”

The dense trees and vegetation around homes mostly hasn’t been an issue, Dillner said. But, he added, people are starting to think more about what living so close to nature could mean in terms of wildfire risk.

“People will have to figure out vegetation management to prevent fires,” he said. “I think people are starting to think about that. I don’t want people to be complacent and think it could never happen here.”

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