On June 24, John Ingram, the Fire Chief of Leverett, Mass., got a call from a resident who noticed a plume of smoke rising from the forest on nearby Joshua Hill. “From the first crews on the scene, we knew it was going to be a pretty large incident,” said Ingram. In the coming days, that fire would grow to consume a 56-acre tract of forest, slightly larger than Boston Common. “It was just impressive to see how much area was burned,” said Ingram.
Compared to arid western states like California, wildfires in Massachusetts are few and far between. But they do happen. This summer has been an especially active wildfire season by Massachusetts standards—the Leverett blaze was one of more than 800 ignitions documented so far, thanks in part to drought conditions across the state. While fire has always been part of New England’s ecology, some experts expect climate change to prime the pump for more wildfire in the future. “We should live with it and understand how it works and manage it,” says Boston University ecologist Pamela Templer.
‘A rich history of wildland fire’
It took Ingram’s crew more than a month to bring the Leverett fire under control. They used infrared-sensing cameras mounted on helicopters and drones to pinpoint hotspots within the blaze. And they doused flames both by hand-held hoses and from a helicopter. They also cut a shallow trench, called a fireline, around the perimeter of the burn to limit its spread. In the end, Ingram’s team halted the wildfire with no building damage and one injury to a firefighter, which Ingram described as a “minor laceration.” It was the biggest fire Ingram had ever faced. But other fire experts viewed the blaze as less than exceptional.
“Massachusetts is no stranger to a rich history of wildland fire,” says Dave Celino, the state’s chief fire warden. He says wildfire has always been part of the region’s natural ecological rhythm of disturbance and recovery. Like elsewhere on the continent, New England’s Native American tribes have long used fire for cultivation, to encourage the growth of certain plants. But in the 20th century, the U.S. government came to view fire strictly as a danger.
The U.S. forest service poured money into fire prevention and suppression campaigns. For a time, those efforts likely made some forests safer for people and property nearby. But fire suppression allowed fine fuels, like twigs and pine needles, to pile up for decades, turning the forest floor into a tinderbox.
“All it needs is that ignition source,” says Celino. And when that spark comes, whether by lightning or fireworks, it can be impossible to control.
Excessive fuel build-up has contributed to the severity of California’s fires, and it’s even been implicated in some massive burns in Massachusetts. Celino describes a wildfire in 1957 that torched 15,000 acres in Plymouth in less than 12 hours. “That’s very California-like,” says Celino. “So it can happen here.”
Massachusetts hasn’t seen a fire nearly that big in decades, though this summer’s many smaller blazes damaged at least nine homes. Experts say that moderate-to-severe drought conditions across the state ripened the forest for burning. And more fire could be in our future.
Heat and drought
“Heat waves are expected to increase in frequency and intensity here in our region,” says Templer. She says climate change is likely to cause more volatile weather in future summers, potentially causing more drought and fire. More burns could mean closures at state parks or other recreational areas. And it could jack up insurance rates for homeowners near wildlands. The solution? Templer suggests fighting fire with fire.
Prescribed burning—intentionally setting small, controlled fires—can help reduce fuel build-up on the forest floor, according to Templer. “I’m not suggesting we burn our entire forest by any means, “ says Templer, but she adds that carefully managed fires can lower the risk of an uncontrolled conflagration like the Plymouth fire of 1957. In recent years, prescribed burning has gained popularity among land managers nationwide as a tool to help keep people and houses safe. Plus, it breaks the cycle of fire suppression and returns a key natural feature to the landscape.
Destruction and opportunity
At Joshua Hill in Leverett, the ground is charred and the smell of smoke still hangs in the air—but already the regenerative benefits of wildfire are starting to reveal themselves. Biologist Caren Caljouw surveys the area, pointing out the neon-green leaves of a small blueberry shoot just beginning its skyward journey from the blackened ground. She says seeds and roots of some plants have been waiting underground, perhaps for years, for a clear shot at growth. Now, the fire has cleared the forest floor of leaf litter and organic debris. This blueberry plant, and others like it have been “hanging on, just waiting for that opening to occur.” The fire provided opportunity for insects and birds too, says Caljouw, adding that woodpeckers are attracted to the forest openings produced by the fire.
Caljouw manages Massachusetts’ prescribed burn program, and she says the state could ramp up those efforts in the future. For now, she continues to search for signs of life amid Leverett’s scorched tree trunks and fallen limbs. Caljouw says she’ll return to the site in the coming months and years to monitor how the forest bounces back.
Daniel Ackerman is a Boston-based freelance journalist who focuses on science and the environment.