Fire: Coming to a Park Near You

Forest Fire - USDA

Forest Fire (USDA)

Massachusetts is burning. Over the weekend brush fires ravaged three acres in Lexington, four acres apiece in Milford and Worcester, twelve acres of the Lynn Woods, and 50 acres in Brimfield went up. The entire state is under a red flag fire danger warning from the National Weather Service—and some of Boston’s parks could be next to catch the flames.

These wildfires aren’t a surprise; Massachusetts had an unusually dry (remember all the snow we didn’t get?) and a warm winter, with the temperatures for the month of March more than 6ºF above normal for most of the state. Most of the country broke high-temperature records last month, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA temperature map March 2012

NOAA temperature map March 2012

The numbers in the graph refer to rank in the years of data collection since 1895. A state which is labeled “118” had the hottest March recorded in the 118 years of data. Massachusetts had a 117 March, or the second-hottest March in 118 years. Oh, and did I mention the huge piles of dry branches and dead trees left in forests around the state by last October’s snow storm and the western Mass tornadoes last spring? That’s called fuel; the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is trying to clear some of it away now, at least in Brimfield.

The National Interagency Fire Center predicts that the Metro Boston area will continue to be exceptionally dry with added “high risk” winds through Patriot’s Day weekend—just in time for the Massachusetts Bureau of Forest Fire Control’s Wildfire Awareness Week! How lucky.

So where will these fires be?

I can’t tell you exactly. I haven’t found a map of past fires. There’s a map of where Massachusetts has fire towers, but that amounts to a map of where Massachusetts has parks. Here’s my best guess.

In terms of probabilities, most of Metro Boston is in an ecoregion that historically has had  “understory fires” at least every three decades or so, and sometimes more often—which is considered frequent by U.S. Forest Service standards. These fires burn off grasses and shrubs but don’t kill most of the trees, and don’t change what kinds of plants grow in the area—or, as the U.S. Forest Service puts it,“Approximately 80 per cent or more of the aboveground dominant vegetation survives fires.”

By contrast, a good chunk of the Cape and southeastern has “mixed severity fires” at least every 34 years which do kill off a good chunk of the trees and other plants in the area. More than 15,000 acres of the Cape burned between Sagamore and Mashpee in 1946, and in1964, 5500 acres of the Miles Standish State Forest burned That’s why the DCR conducts controlled burns at Miles Standish nowadays: to keep the ecosystem functioning without having houses burn down.

The Massachusetts Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program (NHESP) lists seven different native plant communities that are fire adapted, and “benefit from prescribed burning.” Most are on the Cape, but one—Oak Woodland—is present in pretty much every forested area inside of Route 128 according to the NHESP’s plant community guide. One of the examples of an Oak Woodland in the NHESP’s guide is the Middlesex Fells. A lot of people live near the Fells.

Pitch Pine

Pitch pine

There are several ways to tell if the forest near you has had a fire in living memory: Tom Wessel’s book Reading the Forested Landscape has several clues; a few are listed here. Some plants are invigorated by fire. Pin cherries (Prunus pennsylvanica, also known as fire cherries) sprout right up after fires, and pitch pines (Pinus rigida) do very well with fires, fine thank you. If you go walking this weekend and see these species, take a good look around you, and try to remember it. Sooner or later, that place will burn again.

Apart from the Middlesex Fells, Stony Brook Reservation, the Allandale Urban Wild, the Great Blue Hills, and every other piece of forested land in greater Boston, my guess for the next spots to burn are shallow wetlands near highly populated areas. With so little rain, last year’s reeds and cattails are dried out, and there isn’t enough moisture in the soil to keep fires from spreading quickly–and there’s always someone who’s careless with a  cigarette, or can’t wait to try out their new fireworks.

The Neponset Greenway and the Back Bay Fens have already burned; Boston firefighters predict that Stony Brook Reservation could be another hot spot. Arlington’s Great Meadows have burned twice in the last five years. I’d watch any of Boston’s Urban Wilds that are grassy—Belle Isle Marsh? Condor Street?

All these blazes are only the beginning. The Massachusetts Climate Change Adapatation Report released last fall predicts that in coming years Massachusetts will be warmer. There will be less snow, more droughts, more warm springs with more kids hanging around during April Vacation Week with nothing to do.

Consider taking underoccupied children on a walk through the woods next week, and teaching them a little about the plants there. That way, perhaps they’ll have something better to do in the woods than setting off fireworks and brush fires.

Red Trillium

Red Trillium, available now in a forest near you!