By Bill Hamilton, Chief Ranger, Maine Forest Service
Our forests don’t have major wildfires every year – in fact the average wildfire in Maine is usually less than one acre each year. In 2019, for example, Maine had 355 wildfires, with a total of 142 acres burned (see graphic above). Below are other graphics and maps, produced by Special Operations Supervisor Joe Mints and Greg Miller, GIS Coordinator, that will tell you a lot about wildfires in Maine:
Weather and fuel types help, but we also have a professional and effective state Forest Protection Division. Wildfires are attacked quickly and kept small protecting all of Maine landowners. Additionally, I think that Maine’s forest rangers do play a role through prevention and suppression, it’s not all about rainfall.
Still, with 17.6 million acres of forestland we have had and will have major wildfires.
In 1947, the State of Maine suffered its largest forest fire disaster in modern history. The state experienced more 90 consecutive days of record-breaking high temperatures and drought. By mid-October, many small wildfires started and spread out of control. Statewide, these fires burned more than 220,000 acres and 1,000 homes, left 2,500 people homeless and 16 dead. The damages totaled more than 11 million dollars at that time. From October 13 to October 27, firefighters across the state fought about 200 Maine fires, consuming a quarter of a million acres of forest, and wiping out nine entire towns, according to the New England Historical Society.
Depending on your definition of a major wildfire, we have had several since 1947, including the Baxter Park fire in 1977, which burned nearly 4,000 acres; the Moxie fire, 2,000 acres (1997), Red Brook fire 1,500 acres (1990); Sunken Stream fire 1,600 acres (1985); Allagash fire, 1,200 acres, (1992) and Columbia fire 800 acres in 2007. I’m sure that I have missed some.
I particularly like the trend graph above, State of Maine Wildland Fires 1903-2020, because it illustrates that the number of wildfires have increased since 1903, but the acreage continues to shrink. There is a lot of history in this graph and it tells an interesting story. One example is the spike beginning in the mid 1970s lasting through the early 1990s which overlays spruce/fir mortality caused by the last budworm outbreak. Our goal is to prevent wildfires through media, outreach, law enforcement and the Smokey program. When wildfires do happen, we attack from the ground and with aircraft to keep fires small to protect Maine landowners.
Joe Mints also took a quick dive into the weather stats since the 1947 fires and found that we have hit the same burning indices on a few occasions since 1947, but there hasn’t been a repeat of those catastrophic fires. If you compare the two maps below of wildfires by cause from 2015-2019 and 2000-2019, you’ll probably notice that there have been fewer wildfires in the past five years. Look at the 10- year totals over the past two decades (above) and the trend becomes really clear. The 10-year total from 2000 through 2009 was 5,795 fires, but from 2010-2019, there were just 4,933 fires, a decline of 16.6 percent. The drop in the total acres burned was even more striking, dropping from 9,226 acres burned from 2000-2009, to 4,984 burned from 2010-20190, a decline of a 47 percent.
There are many factors at work in this trend, such as access, communications, industry safe guards and stand composition. However, it is clear that the major and consistent difference is our staff and the way they do their jobs.