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The Warming Climate Is Sparking Wildfires On The East Coast

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Wildfire season is getting longer and more extreme in the western U.S., but fire is not just a problem in the West. The warming climate raises the risk of major fire damage almost everywhere, including normally wet New England. As New Hampshire Public Radio's Annie Ropeik reports, now forest managers warn that it could happen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES CRUNCHING)

ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: On the edge of the White Mountain National Forest in the town of Conway, public lands with dense woods weave in and out of the backyards of houses. District Forest Ranger Jim Innes lives around here. And right now, as he digs down into the leaf litter just within the forest boundary, all he sees is fire risk.

JIM INNES: It's just all dry leaves. Like, this stuff will catch in a minute. And all it would take is a cigarette or something like that. So it's dry, like, all the way down. Wow. It's really dry.

ROPEIK: Innes is crouched next to a strip of dirt that looks like a trail. It's popular with local mountain bikers and dog walkers.

INNES: That one loops all the way around the edge.

ROPEIK: The trail is actually a firebreak kept clear by the Forest Service with leaf blowers and chain saws. For a long time, that's been their fire prevention strategy in this area, along with cutting back some brush every few years. The hope is it would keep a fire from spreading to the condos and homes that are visible just a few hundred feet away beyond the trees. But lately, with the forest so dry, Jim Innes has felt like he should be doing more.

INNES: I just want to get ahead of it, you know, so I don't have to be in that position to explain to these people, like, oh, sorry you lost your house. You know, I don't want that, obviously. No one does.

ROPEIK: New Hampshire has been in a drought for more than a year, the state's third long dry period in the past two decades. Scientists say climate change is bringing more rain to the northeast overall, but it's falling in heavier bouts with longer dry stretches in between. That, plus hotter temperatures, shorter winters, less snow - it all creates prime conditions for wildfires.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES CRUNCHING)

ROPEIK: So this summer, Jim Innes is conducting a controlled burn to clear out the dry fuels here. He'll do similar burns up and down the edge of the forest in the next few years and repeat them regularly in the future. It's a new way of using fire as a tool. In the past, the national forest has mostly burned to clear space for nesting birds or blueberry crops.

BECKY BISHOP: How are you guys?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

ROPEIK: This time, the focus is people, neighbors like Becky Bishop (ph) and her dog Rocky (ph), with his bell on.

BISHOP: I love it out here. It's beautiful. It's nice and quiet. And the dog likes it, so yeah.

ROPEIK: You're right up against the forest, right?

BISHOP: Yes. I have the best building. We have the best views.

ROPEIK: Bishop lives in those condos at the edge of the forest next to the firebreak trail, where she and Rocky were out for a walk. When they run into Jim Innes, Bishop asks about the burn project. She'd gotten a public notice about it. She's glad to hear it's still on, even though she's never really worried about wildfires before.

BISHOP: I just think it's a safety issue with everything being so dry and stuff 'cause I know these guys take good care of it, and they manage the forest here really well. So it's never been a concern. But I think it's a great idea that they do this.

ROPEIK: On top of the drought, Bishop is noticing there have also been more people in the forest. Last year, the pandemic brought huge crowds of hikers and campers out onto these trails. It raised the risk of accidental fires, according to Innes and biologist Jessie Dubuque, also of the Forest Service.

INNES: I don't know how many campfires we had to put out. It was in the - it was, like, hundreds.

JESSIE DUBUQUE: Bunches - yeah, it was an incredible amount.

ROPEIK: Another reason these foresters are nervous - this ecosystem is actually overdue for a fire. Periodic, small fires from lightning strikes or set by Indigenous people and later colonists used to happen here every 10 or 15 years. They helped clear out brush and limit worse damage from out-of-control blazes. Then in the late 1800s came huge fires from logging and railroad construction. The government cracked down on fire. Since then, there's been very little burning in these woods, but the fires that have cropped up have been harder to fight than they might have been in a more balanced ecosystem.

And it's not just increasing climate risks that are prompting a shift in forest management. It's also those bigger fires in the West. Jim Innes and Jessie Dubuque both used to work in national forests there, and they've gone back in recent years to help fight huge fires. Dubuque remembers being in Oregon last fall.

DUBUQUE: It was probably the most extreme fire behavior and experience I've ever had because it was completely out of control and really kind of scary.

ROPEIK: Larger fires that damage life and property - they say it could happen in the East. They hope with more prevention and outreach that it won't.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik in Conway, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.