A century of fires in Vermont
Other than the occasional brush pile burn, fires really don’t seem play much of a role in our daily lives here in the northeast. In my 11 years in Vermont, I have yet to encounter a wildfire (maybe I’m just not trying hard enough), whereas growing up in California there were constant reminders of the ever looming threat of destructive and life-threatening fires. And yet the fire towers that dot the landscape speak to the anxiety previous generations of Vermonters felt over the potential of fires to burn both public and private property.
Fires in Vermont – 1909
Helen Ellett, the esteemed fire lookout, from the cover of Randy Kneers biography of her.
In response to a catastrophic fire season in 1903, Vermont established a state forest service. This was followed up with the Vermont Forest Fire Law, which laid out the state’s approach to managing fires and gave power to the state forester and local fire wardens to inform citizens about fire hazards and hold them responsible for brush fires and any activities that caused forest fires. In passing the law (which can be found in full in the state’s first forester, Austin Hawes’ 1909 summary of fire in Vermont: link) the state finally had some teeth to protect its forested land. Hawes’ book was the second publication by the Vermont Forest Service, and its intent was to get a clearer sense of the full scope and impact of forest fires in Vermont, as data was scant and inconsistent. As bad as things may have been in the early 1900s, they were a significant improvement over the previous century. Here’s Hawes taking pause to reflect on the 19th century: “Despite the very bad fire seasons of 1903 and 1908, evidence indicates that fires are less frequent and less disastrous today than formerly and that the people throughout the State are more awake to the necessity of preventing them.” This was cause for hope that things would continue to get better (they didn’t, the 20s and 30s were the most devastating decades for fires).
The numbers are staggering. In the 144 fires that burned from 1904-1908, they burned a total of 16,733 acres, causing $35,682.50 (in 1909 dollars) in damage. Again, these numbers are likely on the very low end because reporting had not yet been standardized. As to what started all those fires “Unknown” was the biggest culprit (45%), followed by burning brush piles (18%), hunters & fishermen (14%), incendiary (13%), railroads (6%), and then miscellaneous (6%), which curiously includes balloons. Trains were powered by wood or coal, so it’s no surprise these were a source of fire.
Even though the system for reporting fires was woefully inaccurate and inconsistent, a few points of comparison can be drawn to the state of things today: 1) fires were were more abundant 100 years ago than they are today; 2) they were, on average, larger than they are today; and 3) there was both a spring and a fall fire season. Our forests in the northeast are much wetter than those out west, and do not readily burn (with notable exceptions found on coarse sandy soils or dry, south-facing rocky slopes).
Another reason that fires were so much more common and devastating was that logging practices were so much different than they are today. Forests were cut wholesale, leaving behind an expansive wasteland of stumps and slash. Images of log drives down the Connecticut River (above) and the Burlington water front (below) from the 1800s begin to give a sense of the scale of logging in the state. While the logs were brought to mills, the crowns were left behind as slash. Over the course of a hot and dry summer, these piles would desiccate into twig tinder bundles just waiting to catch fire in the late summer/fall. As the feverish land clearing of the 19th century slowed, logging tapered off as well, and with it brought the slow decline of forest fires. Fire frequency, scale, and intensity may have declined from the 18th to the 19th century, but the fires were still bad, particularly in prolonged droughts. Something needed to be done.
Following the philosophy of the USFS that prevention and suppression were key to managing forests, Hawes concluded that fire towers should be encouraged and supported by the state: “I would suggest that a law be passed…: Whenever any lumber company or group of forest owners are willing to go to the expense of incorporating such a [lookout] station and connecting it with the necessary telephone service, the State forester shall be authorized to spend money from his annual appropriation for maintaining a watchman at such station during such period as the State forester may think advisable.” And Hawes got his way.
Fires in Vermont – Today
Forest fires in Vermont are not uncommon today, but they are almost always small in scale. While weather certainly contributes to the likelihood and intensity of fires in any given period of time, the return of secondary succession trees and changing land management/logging practices has drastically reduced the average number of fires. From 2012-16, there were 109 fires burning a total of just 317 acres (link), compare that to the 4 year period from 1905-1908 where 149 fires burned 16,733 acres (and again this number is low due to poor reporting). Over the 106 year period from 1905-2011, 3% of the states 4.6 million acres of forest burned (link).
The primary cause of fire is from still from debris burning, but downed electrical wires and lightning strikes also spark numerous wildfires. Additionally, while fall fires were a significantly problem, in the records from 1977-2011 show that this fire season has almost completely disappeared due to changing land management practices. The fire season is now concentrated in April and May, though wet spring seasons may drastically reduce the number of spring fires.