A Warming Planet Makes Northeastern Forests More Susceptible to Western-Style Wildfires

“It's easy in the Northeast to think that we don't have anything to worry about, but it’s important for us to remember that these things can happen here.”

Firefighters battle a brush fire in the Meadowlands near MetLife Stadium on April 11, 2012 in Carlstadt, New Jersey. Credit: Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

Firefighters battle a brush fire in the Meadowlands near MetLife Stadium on April 11, 2012 in Carlstadt, New Jersey. Credit: Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

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In April 2019, 11,000 acres of the New Jersey Pine Barrens burned after dry and windy conditions turned a seemingly innocent bonfire into an inferno. 

The fire, which spewed clouds of orange-tinged smoke so far north that New Yorkers could smell it, sent a powerful reminder of the ecosystem’s vulnerability in a warming world—a reality with which many in the Northeast are newly coming to terms. The Pinelands National Reserve, as its website notes, is “the largest forested area on the Eastern Seaboard between Maine and the Florida Everglades.”

In September, many East Coast residents found themselves shocked by milky skies looming overhead after rampant West Coast fires blew smoke thousands of miles across the country. 

The smoke remained at an altitude of 10,000 to 20,000 feet, keeping those on the ground safe from the particulate pollution suffered by West Coast residents—for the time being.

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But as climate change drives up temperatures and conditions become drier in the region’s heavily forested areas, the potential for climate fires of the kind now dominating West Coast headlines may soon manifest closer to home for those in the Northeast, where warming is altering the seasonality of and conditions for fire that have long shaped local ecosystems.

“It’s easy in the Northeast to think that we don’t have anything to worry about, but it’s important for us to remember that these things can happen here,” said Jeff Lougee, director of stewardship and ecological management at The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire.

Amidst the backdrop of the climate crisis, he said, “There’s a lot of unknowns.”

According to the Northeast-Midwest State Foresters Alliance, forests comprise over 40 percent of land in the northeastern United States. Beyond contributing to the region’s clean air and water, these forests provide substantial economic benefits to the region, with timber harvest and processing alone providing over half a million jobs and more than $20 billion in income

The more moist climate of the Northeast has historically made intense wildfires a less common occurrence than on the West Coast, where rising temperatures combined with dry conditions and droughts can turn vast areas of forest into tinderboxes—as the recent fires ravaging California, Oregon, and Washington have made painfully clear. 

Still, fire is not uncommon in Northeastern forest ecosystems.

“Fire is a small, but significant part of our landscape,” said Erin Lane of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Climate Hub and North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, which promotes communication among regional fire scientists and managers. 

Along with shaping certain pockets of the region such as its pine-oak forests, Lane said, “Fire can and is being used as a tool for wildlife management, agricultural production, ecosystem restoration and timber management.”

But as climate change makes the Northeast’s climate warmer and wetter overall, with rain coming in heavier and more sporadic bouts, it’s also making the region’s forests more drought-prone in the process, laying the conditions for more intense wildfires. 

“We could absolutely experience Western-style fires on a small scale,” said Scott Sabo, a forest ranger for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, based in Adirondack Park. Amidst record-breaking summer heat, fires could have broken out this summer or last summer, he said, adding, “All you need is for that weather window to align.” 

Fuel build-up could contribute to future fire intensity. In the short-term, an ecosystem like the New Jersey Pine Barrens might actually experience fewer of its more typical small fires, while a longer and wetter growing season could lead to greater forest productivity, said Nicholas Skowronski, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service. Over time, that could mean the accumulation of more fuel to feed even greater fires when the right conditions arise.

“The worst case scenario in the pine barrens is a very difficult to control fire that can impact people and their lives and houses that are there,” said Lougee, bringing home for some Northeastern communities the harrowing reality already felt in other parts of the country.

With more fuel accumulating in Northeast forests, the threat posed by a bonfire left unattended by inexperienced or negligent campers—an especially prominent concern during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Americans visiting national parks at record rates—could also grow exponentially.

Along with posing new threats to nearby communities, the changing fire environment could alter the composition of some of the Northeast’s most prized landscapes, where species are adapted to a more consistent and small-scale fire regime.

Contrary to the popular conception of fire as a largely destructive force, “in many areas of the East Coast, fires are not a bad thing,” said Skowronski. Especially in pine barrens ecosystems like the New Jersey Pine Barrens, smaller and more regular fires can help sustain and regenerate fire-dependent species. “These systems have evolved with fire,” said Skowronski, making it part of the cycle of life for some forests.

As the regional climate shifts in places like the New Jersey Pine Barrens, species that are better adapted to a warmer and wetter climate could displace the more fire-adapted species like pitch pine, which are accustomed to the ecosystem’s historical climate. “Over the long-term, we might actually lose these systems that are very unique in our region,” said Skowronski.

In upstate New York, John Sheehan at the Adirondack Council, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to preserving the Adirondack Park, shares similar concerns.

“Just a few seasons of drought or a change in long-term climate in the northwestern part of the park could alter that habitat significantly and make it a lot more fire-hungry,” said Sheehan, the council’s director of communications.

A warming climate could lead to the retreat of forest species accustomed to cooler environments such as the red spruce and balsam fir. That would leave more of the park, the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, covered by the more flammable Appalachian mixed hardwood forest, said Sheehan. 

For its part, the Adirondack Council is partnering with everyone from state and federal officials to scientists and local residents, Sheehan said, “to keep climate change from becoming an enemy of the park.”

Looking ahead, some Northeast policymakers are already enacting new measures for future fire mitigation. 

In October 2019, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order that included measures to reduce the risk of wildfires in state forests. And just last month, New Hampshire Governor Christopher T. Sununu banned open fires and smoking near woodlands due to the threat of wildfires. 

Along with New York, New Hampshire is also part of the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission of the Northeast Compact, a body of states, provinces, city and federal agencies that has worked since its establishment in 1949 to promote and help coordinate effective regional efforts to prevent and control forest fires.

“It’s important for us to just continue investing in preparedness,” said Lougee, citing the National Fire Protection Association’s voluntary Firewise USA program, which provides a framework to help residents organize around defending their homes from the threat of wildfire.

He suggested that removing trees, combined with prescribed or controlled burns—already, well-known fire mitigation tools—could also help reduce fuel load to help curb future fire intensity.