Monday, October 29, 2007

Is Another Adirondack Fire Disaster On The Way?

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most terrible Adirondack years on record. Forest fires ravaged the region in 1908 and led to a widespread system of fire detection. The recent California fires point up the danger Adirondackers face as global warming tends the region to increasing episodes of drought such as that that occurred this fall and contributed to the historically low levels at the Hinckley Reservoir.

According to the APA:

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fires raged out of control in the many of New York State’s vast wooded areas. The years 1903 and 1908 were particularly disastrous, and because of public outcry for protection from the devastation, the state began a rigorous fire and prevention and control program, including the building of fire towers.

The first state fire towers in the Adirondacks were established in the Adirondacks in 1909 on Mount Morris in Franklin County, Gore Mountain in Warren County, and West, Snowy and Hamilton mountains in Hamilton County. Three other towers were established in the Catskills.

Each tower was equipped with a telephone, a map, and binoculars. When smoke was sighted, an observer would call in the location of the fire to a forest ranger. These wooden towers were replaced with steel towers and the use of towers greatly reduced the number of acres destroyed by fires because they were extinguished at the early stages. Eventually the state had about 114 fire towers operating throughout the state in 1960. In 1971 the state started to use air surveillance and gradually closed the fire towers to save money. By 1990 the remaining four fire towers in the Adirondacks and one in the Catskills were closed. Fifty-two towers were removed but many remained and began to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance.

According to Adirondack Architectural Heritage:

For sixty years in the Adirondacks, this system was a success. But with the advent of the light airplane for fire sighting and the rising costs of manning the fire towers, these once important stations were slowly deactivated and today none are manned. When the Poke-O-Moonshine fire tower in Essex County was deactivated in 1988, DEC’s costs had risen to $7500 to keep a tower in service during the six month fire season.

The DEC’s 2006 Forest Ranger Report noted that:

In the last exceptionally dry fire season of 2002, 324 wildfires occurred throughout the state, burning a total of 2,062 acres. In historical contrast, the similarly dry weather of 1903 spawned over 643 fires which burned 464,000 acres in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks alone. The difference from 1903 to 2002 is a direct result of 100 years of forest ranger efforts, working to prevent wildfires and improve fire control response.

In 2002, the Forest Ranger Division experienced one of the busiest and most difficult summer fire seasons in the Adirondacks since the early 1960s. After several years of drought in the Adirondack region, an abundance of “dry- lightning” caused 40 fires to ignite in August. At one point, 30 fires were active and most of the division’s personnel were involved with suppression activities. By the end of the year, rangers had controlled 324 fires that burned 2,062 acres at a direct cost of $318,758.

In contrast, 2003, 2004 and 2005 were just the opposite, with frequent rains that prevented wildfires from occurring in the state throughout the year. Statistically, over the last 21 years, the Division has responded to an average of 330 wildland fires per year with 66% of these fires occurring in March, April, and May. 85% of these fires are smaller than 10 acres and only six fires burning more one thousand acres. The primary cause of wildland fire in New York is debris burning, however, arson, campfires and lightning have been the causes of the most damaging fires encountered by rangers.

On average, the Division experiences about 100 days per year in which a wildfire is likely to occur. In 2006, rangers contained and extinguished 211 fires in the spring, 11 fires in the summer and 9 fires in the fall that burned a total of 2,323 acres. Eleven of these fires required the division to incur direct costs at a combined expense of $10, 014. Twenty-six of these fires occurred on department-managed state lands. The most significant wildfire of 2006 occurred in late April on Cherrytown Mountain in Ulster County. By the time the fire was declared out, it had burned 998 acres, mostly on State forest preserve lands, and had cost the Department $8,400 in direct suppression expenses.

Today, DEC Forest Rangers manage a Fire Cache in Saratoga where just 19 large trailers are stocked with equipment for rapid response. During the 2002 fires all of the trailers (just eight at the time) were put into operation in the Adirondacks leaving no others available in the case that the situation got worse. The statewide objective has been met with the current 19 trailers.

Without regular fires to keep Adirondack residents on their toes, there may be a level of complacency that provides opportunities for fires to start and spread, along with little understanding of the relative dangers to homes and property.

I’m no expert, but the state fire prevention system seems almost nonexistent. There are no signs that warn of periods of fire danger on I-87 to alert Northway travellers, for instance. When fire danger is high, Adirondack counties have no widespread system to alert residents and tourists of the danger. When counties pass bans on open fires, locals almost never hear about them, let alone visitors.

It’s time to look again at the increasing possibilities of enormous fires in the Adirondacks and consider the dangers seriously at the higher levels of government. It’s time to inform locals and visitors alike about wildfire prevention and to put into place uniform and widespread systems to issue alerts.

Now is the time to act.

UPDATE 10/30/07: Philip Terrie, Adirondack Historian and Emeritus Professor, American Culture Studies & English at Bowling Green University offers his take on the Adirondack fire situation:

While we should always be alert to the possibility of fire and should do more to educate people about safe practices (it constantly amazes me that some campers will build a campfire on the dry forest floor), there are at least two major differences between the Adirondacks of today and of a century ago. It’s generally accepted that the main reason fires were so awful in 1903 and 1908 was that loggers left huge piles of slash behind them: bark, branches, twigs, etc. This dried up and became tinder waiting for a spark. The sparks often came from the other significant distinction between now and then: coal burning locomotives, with no controls on sparks. After the great fires, state foresters noticed that they were far worse in the slash zones. The state passed a lopping law (requiring that debris be cut up and left on the forest floor, where it would rot more quickly), and regulations on locomotives were passed. The era of the great fires quickly ended.

A century ago, loggers for the most part were indifferent to how they left the land; today, they do an infinitely better job of caring for the forest where they work. And of course, there is a lot less logging in the Adirondacks today than there was a century ago. The chief explanation for the great fires was logging and the way it was conducted. Since that has changed, the threat is much diminished.

But give climate change a few decades, and we could recreate those dangerous conditions, with different species and dryer, hotter weather.

John Warren

John Warren

John Warren founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and oversees the day-to-day operations of the site in addition to editing The New York History Blog.

He has worked in media for 25 years as a print journalist, a documentary television producer, and now in new media. He's on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and is the author of two books of regional history.

John's weekly Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report airs across the Adirondack North Country Region on the North Country Public Radio network.

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