The Hippo


May 26, 2020








How NH residents can prepare for wildfire risks

By Ryan Lessard

 California’s wine country is beginning a historic cleanup effort as it nears full containment of the wildfires that devastated 245,000 acres of land, killed at least 43 people and destroyed thousands of homes and other structures. In New Hampshire, local, state and federal fire services recently contained a fire on Dilly Cliff in North Woodstock, which burned about 70 acres for the better part of October.

And the threat of wildfires is not yet extinguished in New Hampshire. With unusually warm fall temperatures and below normal precipitation, wildfire risks are still ongoing, even with the recent rainfall.
Douglas Miner, a forest ranger captain with the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, said that while there are some differences in topography and tree types compared to up north or California, southern New Hampshire still has plenty of places where big, difficult-to-manage wildfires could happen.
“There are still some very large parcels which can equate to some very similar challenges to what they dealt with on the Dilly fire,” Miner said.
Places like large conservation easements, fish and wildlife management properties and state parks are all located in the southern part of the state. And some of the most difficult fires to deal with are those located on hills or mountains.
“There are some pretty high peaks even in the southern part of the state that could potentially create a longer-duration fire to deal with,” Miner said.
When you can’t bring a fire engine close or have nearby access to water and pumping capacity, the problem is much more challenging. In the case of Dilly Cliff, it was a 45-minute hike from the staging area to where the fire was taking place. Crews had to deploy a variety of tactics to contain it, including water drops from helicopters.
In some ways, global warming may be driving some of the increased risks, insofar as it causes more severe droughts and milder winters. Traditionally, a heavy snow cover helps to pack down dead plant debris like grass and leaves from the previous year, making it harder for a fire to take hold. 
So far, this year hasn’t been as bad as some years; 2016 saw 1,090 acres burned by 351 fires throughout the year. 
“We had some much larger fires [last year] than New Hampshire normally would see,” Miner said.
And while tree fires are more rare in New Hampshire, especially like the crown fires seen in North Woodstock, grass fires are still a big risk and rain does little to assuage Miner’s concerns.
“We could have a rainstorm that ends at 8 o’clock in the morning and we can have grass fires burning at 11 o’clock,” Miner said.
Ultimately, there are things we can do to protect our homes and families from wildfires, which are spread mostly from embers in the wind. Miner said nine out of 10 are still caused by humans.
“Unfortunately, in 73 years, we really haven’t made a lot of progress even with all of the educational campaigns that we’ve had in school systems with the Smokey Bear program. People, still, are not being totally careful about making sure that their fires are totally extinguished before they leave them,” Miner said.
Mostly, this means properly extinguishing cigarettes and making sure campfires are completely out before going to sleep or leaving the property.
But if a fire has started in a southern New Hampshire forest, near your home, you’ll want to make sure the property is in a “defensible space,” as Miner terms it.
“It’s not creating a biological desert around the structures. You can still have vegetation there. You just want to have lush green grass or vegetation that’s very healthy,” Miner said.
He said it’s important to clean dried leaves and pine needles from gutters and roofs, and to rake it out from around and underneath decks. Don’t put bark mulch around foundations, and avoid plants like juniper, the resin of which tends to serve as a natural fuel. 
Wildfire season picks up again in the spring soon after the snow melts, so it’s best to clear out brush and dead plant material now.
Miner also recommends downloading the mobile app Wildfire Preparedness, which has additional tips specifically for the Northeast on how to prepare, plan and respond to wildfires in your area.

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