The East Coast Will Not Escape Fire

Even parts of the country normally considered “wet” are drying out, with dangerous results.

Wharton State Forest, in New Jersey
Wharton State Forest, in New Jersey (Bryan Anselm)

The lawns are dead. Trees that should be green have turned brittle and brown. And highway signs caution drivers not to flick cigarettes out the window. These conditions have become the norm of summer and its high fire risk in the western United States. But this is not California, or Colorado, or Idaho. This is New Jersey. And during this summer’s thirsty days, undergirded by climate change, the state has gotten far too little rain.

“We’re in the midst of a very dry spell,” David Robinson, New Jersey’s state climatologist, told me. “Borderline drought in central New Jersey, and dry conditions to the north and south of there.”

In this, the Garden State is not alone. Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor show that roughly two-thirds of the United States is facing unusually dry conditions ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought. This includes regions typically thought of as relatively wet—parts of New York, including New York City, and much of New England, including Boston. By the standards of more arid climes, the Northeast is still fairly wet. But “drought is relative to the normal climate regime of an area,” Robinson said. “They’d be thrilled with 30 inches of rain down in the Colorado basin. Here, 30 inches of rain in a year would be one of the driest years on record.”

With climate change, the destruction is in the details. The Northeast is now primed for more frequent droughts that will harm agriculture, intermittently reduce drinking-water supplies, and increase wildfire risk. The East will not emerge unscathed from the infernos that are quickly becoming a hallmark of western summers.

In June, more than 13,000 acres burned in Wharton State Forest, during New Jersey’s largest fire in the past 15 years. The fire, spread by strong winds and dry conditions in an area that was difficult for firefighters to access, was likely started by humans. Fortunately, it caused no human injuries, because it burned primarily on protected land with little development.

This stretch of trees, New Jersey’s largest state forest, is mostly pineland, and some of the increased fire risk owes to the ecology of the region. Some soils, most notably clay soils, are like cotton towels. They let water through, but they hold on to a good amount as well, and take a long time to dry out. Other, sandy soils are like quick-dry fabrics. More water pours through them; they hold on to less moisture.

“There’s sort of an old adage, from some of the folks that worked in forest-fire organization in the early 1900s. They would say, ‘You can have an inch of rain in the Pinelands region in New Jersey in the morning, and have a large fire in the afternoon,’” Greg McLaughlin, the chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and the state fire warden, told me. “A lot of the soil is very sandy, so that water doesn’t hang around. It goes through soil down to the aquifer and it’s gone, perhaps within 24 hours.”

Pinelands are a fire-adapted ecosystem—they were meant to burn. These days, the Forest Fire Service deliberately sets fires in the region to promote the ecosystem’s health and to reduce the risk of out-of-control conflagrations. But part of the fire risk comes from changing conditions. Hotter temperatures increase wildfire risk for the same reason they dry your clothes faster: They increase the rate of evaporation. Drier plants simply catch fire more easily. Once, April was New Jersey’s peak fire season: Low humidity, high wind, increased temperatures, and less shade from deciduous trees all heightened fire risk. Now, McLaughlin said, “we’re seeing a lot of blending of the seasons … We’re seeing fire behavior in June that resembles conditions of April.” According to McLaughlin, fire season isn’t just ending later; it now starts a month earlier too, in February.

And New Jersey is not alone in facing these problems. Some experts predict that Pennsylvania’s and West Virginia’s fire risk will double in the coming years, and Georgia has recently struggled with more intense fires. Perhaps the greatest sign that the East’s fire fates are shifting was the Great Smoky Mountain complex of fires, which struck near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, beginning in November 2016.

The region’s trees give the mountains their eponymous smoky visage, by releasing compounds and water into the air. But that fall’s severe drought meant that water was in short supply when two teens—who likely ignited the biggest fire—hiked a forested trail, lighting matches as they went. In the ensuing blazes, more than 14,000 people had to evacuate, 2,500 homes burned, and 14 people died.

No single point of failure led to that catastrophe. The weather conditions set the groundwork, and the young people may have lit matches, but park officials declined to put that fire out, in part because they did not at first see it as a threat to the community. Suppressing wildfires has the unintended consequence of causing bigger fires down the line, so whenever possible, letting a fire burn is better than putting it out. In this case, downed power lines also started smaller fires. And as all those fires grew and grew, a windstorm arrived, turning them into a disaster.

The lesson is not that the East will be as fire-prone as the West—the data don’t bear that out. It is rather that, because of climate change, small risks will become larger risks.

And somehow, we’re going to have to prepare for them all.